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Hydrofluorocarbons: Finally, Something the U.S. and China Can Agree On

June 24, 2013 ·

China's about-face on HFCs at the Sunnylands summit is a really big deal.

China's about-face on HFCs at the Sunnylands summit is a really big deal.

Obama, JinpingPresident Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t reach much consensus on cyber hacking or other divisive issues during their recent two-day summit in Rancho Mirage, California. But they made huge strides forward on a decidedly wonkier front by agreeing to reduce the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

Commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioning units, HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and are therefore known as “super greenhouse gases.” They were introduced to the market as refrigerants after the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, in which nearly 200 countries agreed to phase out the production of ozone-depleting compounds. Although ozone-friendly, HFCs could account for as much as 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Their production has soared in developing countries like China and India, as demand for refrigerators and air conditioning explodes among the middle class.

In 2009, the United States, Canada, and Mexico submitted a joint proposal calling on other parties to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and replace them with new, safer compounds. According to the Center for American Progress, this amendment to the protocol would eliminate the equivalent of 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and avert a half-degree (Celsius) rise in global temperature by the end of the century. Over 110 other countries support the proposal, but strong objections from China, India, and Brazil—who argue that the phase-out would slow development and saddle them with high costs—have prevented the proposal from taking effect. 

Therefore, China’s about-face on HFCs at the Sunnylands summit, as leading environmental advocates have pointed out, is a really big deal. In an astonishing gesture of superpower cooperation, Obama and Xi signed a pledge stating that their countries would “work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches,” including the Montreal Protocol, “to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.”

There’s now renewed hope that the world could see a substantial reduction in HFCs in the near(ish) future. However, it’s uncertain whether China will support the proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol or pursue other multilateral approaches, which might take a lot longer. China’s powerful chemical companies, which are heavily invested in the production of HFCs, will probably do everything they can to delay the phase-down until they determine that investing in new refrigerants is more lucrative.

Nevertheless, the joint pledge signed by the United States and China has given a much-needed jumpstart to the global movement to reduce HFCs. It’s also a promising indication that the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” will give rise to further joint efforts to tackle climate change. It’s about time that the world’s two largest polluters take more initiative in cleaning up their own mess. 

Cindy Hwang is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.