We’re Cutting HFCs? Great! But Don’t Get Too Excited

HFCsOver at Vox Brad Plumer wrote, The World Just Took One of the Biggest Steps yet to Fight Global Warming. It is about last week’s amendment to the Montreal Protocol that will limit the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). And it is good news! Just the same, don’t think that it represents some turning point in the fight against global warming. Like the Montreal Protocol itself, this is just another example of how easy it is to get good environmental deals made when it will increase (or at least not hurt) corporate profits.

People focus on carbon-dioxide, because it is the biggest direct human caused force heating the atmosphere. But it isn’t the only greenhouse gas. In fact, it isn’t the most important. Roughly half the effect of increases in carbon-dioxide are due to a feedback where the temperature rise causes there to be more water vapor in the air. That water vapor then increases the temperature more.

Replacing CFCs Was Good Business

There are other important human created greenhouse gases: methane, nitrous oxide, and the two big chlorofluorocarbon: CFC-11 and CFC-12. Well, both those last two were banned in the Montreal Protocol. And if you know the history of the ozone hole, you may have wondered why it was so easy to address that problem but not global warming. The answer is simple: the patents were running out on those chemicals and DuPont et al had some brand new patents that they could replace the CFCs with: HFCs!

But call me cynical, I can’t help but notice that 20 years after we banned the CFCs, we are now going to phase out the HFCs, which just happen to be going out of patent.

The problem is that greenhouse gases are not all created equal. For example, there is only about 1/200th as much methane in the atmosphere as there is carbon-dioxide. But methane is still important because it has about 25 times the heat trapping ability of carbon-dioxide. The CFCs and the HFCs have a far higher heat trapping potential. CFC-12 traps almost 20,000 times as much heat as carbon-dioxide. The HFCs are in the same area. So it is really good that we are getting rid of them. (See the IPCC’s Direct Global Warming Potentials for details about this stuff.)

Replacing HFCs Is Good Business

But call me cynical, I can’t help but notice that 20 years after we banned the CFCs, we are now going to phase out the HFCs, which just happen to be going out of patent. But not to worry! There is a replacement: hydrofluoroolefins! What are they? According to Wikipedia they are “‘fourth generation’ refrigerants with a thousand times lower global-warming potential than HFCs.” And again: that’s great! But these compounds are only now being developed, meaning their patents haven’t even started.

Getting rid of HFCs is necessary. I’m not putting down this recent deal. I just want people to understand that it can’t be generalized. This was a case where corporate financial interests intersected with the public good. When that happens, governments (specifically the US government) find it politically possible to make changes.

Still No Clear Way Forward

The government should be looking out for the public good. That doesn’t seem to be the way that it works. The government looks out for the corporate good. So we can applaud the ends of this amendment to the Montreal Protocol. But the means are a real problem. We aren’t going to get deals like this when it comes to the fossil fuel industry.

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