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Can a 25-Year-Old Treaty Save the Planet from Air Conditioning Itself to Death?

Remember that one time twenty-five years ago when the world banded together to save itself from solar radiation? Let's try to do that again.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 21 2013, 9:18pm
Image: Wikimedia

There are not many moments in history when nearly all the various nations of the world have banded together to thwart a common threat, but here's one: The 1987 Montreal Protocol. In the 80s, scientists warned that human civilization was using too many chemicals—mostly chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) and hydrocholoroflourocarbons (HCFCs), compounds found in things like aerosol sprays and refrigerators—that happened to be eating away at the Earth's ozone layer with alarming rapidity. 

The growing ozone hole meant a boatload more ultraviolent radiation could bombard the global population, and would eventually result in greatly increased skin cancer risks planetwide. So the world, high on Reagan and enviro-optimism, united to ban the substances in question to rescue the ozone layer. Scientists now expect the atmosphere to fully recover in a few decades. All this may be a bit less dramatic than defeating Hitler or hosting a particularly well-run Olympics, but it's still one of our finest globally-orchestrated triumphs.

Kofi Annan called it "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date," and, as the seventh UN Secretary General, he should know.

The ozone hole in 2005. NASA

So let's do it again, shall we? A number of environmental policymakers are hoping to do exactly when the Parties to the Montreal Protocol meet again this week in Bangkok, to hold its 25th convening since the original summit. Each nation that signed on to help bail out the ozone layer still meets every few years to revise the treaty, and usually it's a pretty straightforward affair. But some members are hoping to push a controversial idea to once again save the planet from a grave, existential threat. 

See, one of the chemicals that manufacturers have used to get around the bans on certain kinds of refrigerants is hydroflourocarbons—HFCs. The compound, now widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners doesn't kill the ozone layer. But it does have another unfortunate side-effect: It's a so-called "super-greenhouse gas." It's much more powerful than carbon dioxide, the target of most of the world's climate concerns, as HFCs trap around 1,600 times more sunlight than CO2. 

According to a 2011 UN report, "the projected emissions of HFCs by 2050 could equal pouring nearly 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — or about one-third of current CO2 emissions." That's insane. A single chemical in our refrigerators and air conditioners will contribute one-third of the warming to a planet already blanketed by emissions from coal, oil, and industry. 

As such, leaders are maneuvering to add HFCs into the updated Montreal Protocol treaty this week, even though it doesn't effect the ozone layer. Many see it as an opportunity to eliminate one of the world's fastest-growing contributors to climate change. As a Yale blog post notes, "with the increase in world population and the continued growth of emerging economies, annual consumption of HFCs has doubled over the last decade to about 400,000 tons ... The most common type of HFC increased 10 percent annually from 2006 to 2010."

As tens of millions of people in rapidly developing nations, mostly in Asia, are entering the middle class, they're buying air conditioners and refrigerators at an increasingly rapid clip. And more HFCs are getting whipped up to meet demand. And therein lies the problem. Refrigerants with HFCs are often the cheapest and most widely available. Nations—especially those situated in hot, arid climes—just beginning to embrace the fridges and air conditioners much of the rest of the world has enjoyed for decades are hesitant to ban the chemical they see as integral to staying cool.

That's why it's no surprise that India is the biggest holdout to a potential HFC-banning treaty. A government official in New Delhi told the Economic Times that "We are not rigid. But, we'll have to see whether our industries are ready to move to alternatives that have low global warming potential." He added that they would not consider any alternative that was more expensive or might "pass the burden onto consumers." Sound familiar? This is exactly why nobody's been able to get a climate treaty off the ground since Kyoto—everyone is worried about bearing an unfair part of the burden. 

And yet, somewhat surprisingly, China, the US, and most of the G20 nations have made a tentative agreement to phase out HFCs. And the Environmental Protection Agency has singled out three alternative coolants that don't trap more heat than LeBron James' armpit or eat away the ozone faster than Kobayashi downs a hot dog. Right now, they may be a tad more expensive than the traditional technology, but they are better than a scorched earth—the equivalent of 100 billion tons of CO2 in HFCs are headed for the atmosphere over the next 40 years, and campaigners like the Environmental Investigation Agency say the Bangkok meetings a "historic opportunity" to turn the tide. "... a global phasedown of HFCs could avoid 100 gigatons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions by 2050, and prevent a global average temperature increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius," energy policy researcher Hallie Kennan writes at Live Science.

That would be a good thing. Reducing greenhouse emissions is an imperative now that we've soared past the 400 ppm mark, and there are more greenhouse gases saturating our atmosphere than there have been for the whole of human history. We're headed for trouble if we don't make a concerted effort to let more of that heat back into space. And yet the international community has shown none of the fortitude it did during that early ozone battle. The US never signed the Kyoto Protocol, the closest the world's ever come to a unified effort to fight global warming. 

There are plenty of reasons that this is the case—climate change stems from something that's much more integral to modern economies than aerosols or refrigerant. The coal that provides half the world's power, the oil that moves nearly all of its cars—these are central to the world as it is, and it would be much more economically and politically painful to ply them out of the foundation. Furthermore, the public was simply never as afraid of climate change as it was of the ozone layer, which came with a handy example of what sociologists call "a bridging metaphor." 

Ozone was like a deflector shield—a concept we'd internalized from pop culture artifacts like Star Trek and beyond—and they were going down. The result was worldwide radiation. The will to combat the plight was enormous, because the problem was so digestible, so comprehensible. Not so with slow-burning climate change. 

Which is why many fear that a single major nation—India, in this case, the US and China in so many others—can protest a global treaty on economic grounds and throw the entire process into disarray. We'll have to see what the delegates decide at this latest world-saving effort, but chances are nobody cares enough, and the costs are too high, for anything resembling a repeat of that one time all the nations banded together to save the world from ourselves.