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Durwood Zaelke
President of IGSD – Institute for governance and sustainable

Last year, the world’s governments took the single biggest step yet to curb global warming. Meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, they agreed to eliminate one of the six main pollutants causing climate change, thus avoiding a full half a degree of warming by the end of the century.

Their historic agreement, the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, is also the first international measure to address the urgent need to take fast action to reduce the rapid rise in global temperatures before it pushes the world’s climate past crucial tipping points into uncontrollable change. It is thus probably the most important decision yet to protect the global commons.

Even before last year, the 30-year-old Montreal Protocol was well established as the most successful environmental treaty – and one of the most effective of any kind – ever struck. Originally designed to protect the Earth’s vital ozone layer, it has cut almost 100 substances that attack it by almost 100%, putting it on the path to healing.

And it has had another and equally important, collateral consequence – slowing climate change. The chemicals that deplete ozone are also greenhouse gases, something scientists first told us in 1975. By phasing them out, the Montreal Protocol had by last year done five times as much to control climate change as the Kyoto Protocol, which specifically set out to address it.

The legally-binding Kigali amendment will phase down the use of a class of substances – hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – brought in as substitutes for ozone-depleting refrigerants. It will curb HFC use by over 80%. The effect will be to prevent emissions equivalent to 90 bn tonnes or more of carbon dioxide from contributing to global warming by 2050, and avoid up to 0.5C of warming by the end of the century. This is a highly significant contribution when governments are trying to keep the increase in temperatures since the pre-industrial era to well below 2C – and aiming for no more than 1.5C.

Kigali amendment also packs a second punch, with the potential to double its benefits in slowing climate change, avoiding up to an entire degree of warming. A change of refrigerant offers manufacturers a chance to improve their air conditioning units and other appliances and make them more energy efficient. They did this in the past when phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals, and similar measures during the HFC phase down could avoid emissions equal to another 100bn tonnes or more of carbon dioxide, and possibly avoid up to another 0.5C of warming.

Making the world’s air conditioners and other cooling equipment more efficient is urgently needed. The world is poised to add 700m air conditioning units to its present 900m by 2030, with the total soaring to 2.5bn by 2050. Ownership of units in urban China has already increased from 5% to over 100% (with many households having more than one) in just 15 years. India and other hot developing countries are about to follow suit.
Increased efficiency would also lower the cost of cooling for families, since energy use accounts for over 80% or more of a unit’s cost over its lifetime. And it would greatly benefit national economies. Improving the efficiency of air conditioning in India by just 30%, for example, could save enough electricity to avoid building up to 140 medium sized power plants to meet peak demand by 2030 and up to 500 by 2050.
This would save billions in construction costs and billions more by reducing imports of the fossil fuels that would have been burned in them. It would also reduce deadly air pollution – the world’s leading environmental killer – especially since the peak power demanded to run air conditioners on hot days is usually supplied by the oldest and dirtiest plants.

The world has the opportunity to pursue this double-fisted strategy. Nations must urgently ratify the Kigali amendment, and consider phasing down HFCs even faster than it stipulates. And they must seize the opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of air conditioning and other cooling equipment at the same time.
The Montreal Protocol has never let us down, and as it turns 30 this year, we should thank it for its planet-saving actions; and urge it on to do still more to save the climate and our global commons.

By Durwood Zaelke, president of IGSD – Institute for governance and sustainable development