If there are two things I can't live without, they are air conditioning and refrigeration.
This summer, I spent an angelic three months in Ann Arbor with my wife and newborn. One night in July, our side of the street had a blackout and suddenly the hot, humid, 98 degree air, kept at bay by modern technology, became our worst enemy -- threatening our delicate newborn and the store of breast milk (we have taken to calling "liquid gold") in the freezer. We kept the freezer shut, moved to the cooler basement, and hunkered down until the power came back on.
Around the world, with global temperatures and heat waves projected to rise and increase over the coming decades, staying cool and keeping everything from food to medicine refrigerated will be crucial to the health and survival of billions. And for the past several decades, that has meant the use of Hydrofluourocarbons or HFC's -- invented in 1928 to replace the explosive and dangerous gases used in refrigeration.
HFC's are governed by the Montreal Protocol ("MP"), created to protect the planet's thin ozone layer. Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, and head of the International Network for Environmental Compliance & Enforcement, calls the MP the "best climate treaty to date." According to Zaelke, the MP has "already delayed climate change by up to 12 years by reducing climate emissions by a net of 135 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent", phasing out "nearly 100 other gases that harm the ozone layer and warm the climate, cutting production and consumption of targeted chemicals by 97%."
Anyone following the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen for the past two weeks has heard an enormous amount about carbon and carbon dioxide. As the second leading contributer to a mix of greenhouse gases "GHG's" that both keep our globe warm enough for humans to occupy and threaten to turn up the temperature in years to come - this makes perfect sense. But according to Zaelke, this is not enough. "We need meaningful action in Copenhagen to address CO2, but CO2 is only half the climate problem. We also need to take fast and aggressive action to reduce the...non-CO2 half of warming. Reducing black carbon soot, tropospheric ozone, methane, and HFCs, as well as expanding biosequestration through biochar production, are strategies that can help delay abrupt climate change while we wait for reductions in CO2 to kick in."
Parties to the MP will be looking to the Copenhagen climate negotiations for further support for a fast HFC phase-down. The two treaties would address different aspects of HFCs with the Kyoto Protocol addressing downstream emissions and the MP phasing down the upstream production and consumption. Zaelke, whose team won a 2008 Climate Protection award for their work, believes that "fast HFC cuts can prevent a decade of warming and reduce the equivalent of up to 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide." Zaelke warns that "we could win the battle against CO2 and still lose the war against climate change if we let HFCs continue to grow" that will "warm the world almost half as much as CO2 emissions by 2050." They have launched a Fast Action campaign to focus on these other climate change leveers.
Over the past year, Zaelke's team has participated in a diverse set of meetings and negotiations to put HFCs on the radar as the world gathers to tackle GHG reductions in Copenhagen. In April, the Federal States of Micronesia and Mauritius launched an initiative to amend the MP, the very successful 1989 treaty to preserve the earth's protective ozone layer. These two nations, joined by 39 others, pledged to amend the MP next year to phase out. More recently, Zaelke brought this message to Washington, DC, as he spoke to officers representing Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US at an official event on the role of the military in the Montreal Protocol.
Last month, Nobel laureate Mario Molina, Zaelke, and several others put out a report warning about the threat of abrupt climate change, and laying out some "fast action" strategies to include regulatory measures that could begin within 2-3 years, be substantially implemented in 5-10 years, and have an impact.
Last week, in related news, beverage giant Coca Cola committed to phasing out the use of HFCs in its nearly 10 million refrigeration units by 2015. According to an article in Greenbiz.com, Coca Cola has agreed to convert the company's nearly 10 million vending machines worldwide "with HFC-free units [that] will reduce carbon emissions by 52.5 million metric tons over the life of the new equipment, which is roughly equivalent to taking 11 million cars off the road for a year."
So, even as carbon holds center stage at the COP 15 in Copenhagen this week and beyond, keep an eye out for news - like this article in the Economist or this piece in the LA Times about the "Forgotten 50%" of GHG emissions. The way things are going, we will need these efforts to buy the world time for future legally binding CO2 reductions to kick in.