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New Push to Limit ‘Super Greenhouse’ Gases

United Nations climate change talks may be on a slow train to nowhere, but that doesn't mean countries can't try tackling global warming at the international level. Friday, the Federated States of Micronesia, a Pacific island nation, submitted a plan to amend the 1989 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down the production and use of so-called "super-greenhouse gases."

The Micronesian proposal, which has garnered the support of more than 100 parties to the ozone treaty, including the U.S. and the European Union, seeks to cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are compounds that contain carbon, hydrogen, and fluorine. These substances are used as solvents, refrigerants, firefighting agents, and propellants. They were introduced as a substitute for the chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs, that scientists discovered were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer — thereby allowing greater amounts of the Sun's harmful ultraviolet rays to reach the Earth's surface.

The Antarctic ozone hole as depicted by NASA satellite sensors in 2004. Credit: NASA.  

Unlike CFCs, HFCs don't destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere, but they do have a downside: they are extremely powerful global warming gases. In fact, HFC-134a, which is the most popular HFC substitute and is used in air conditioning systems in vehicles, has a global warming potential that is more than 1,400 times that of carbon dioxide, the main manmade global warming gas.

HFCs don't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does, though, which means that the benefits of reducing their use could be seen rather quickly. This makes reducing HFCs an attractive option for low-lying island nations like Micronesia, which are worried about sea level rise during the next several decades.

"In Durban the world agreed to develop a new climate plan by 2015 to go into effect in 2020, but we need action now, and an agreement to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is the best strategy this year," said Micronesian ambassador Asterio Takesy in a press release.

In the U.S., HFC emissions have skyrocketed in recent years, growing by 216 percent between 1990 and 2009, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), an environmental think tank in Washington, claims that phasing down HFC production and use under the Micronesian plan would be the equivalent of preventing 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

"Phasing down HFCs is the biggest, fastest, cheapest piece of climate mitigation available to the world in the next few years," IGSD president Durwood Zaelke said.

With U.N. climate talks deadlocked, environmental advocates have increasingly turned to the Montreal Protocol to address greenhouse gases that fall under that treaty's purview. The Protocol is widely considered to be one of international environmental law's greatest success stories, responsible for slashing emissions of ozone-depleting substances and helping address climate change at the same time.

Zaelke said the proposal may draw opposition from India and Brazil, among others, due to concerns that an HFC phaseout would harm industry, and because of their opposition to mandatory emissions reductions.

This isn't the first time that Micronesia has spearheaded an effort to address global warming within the framework of the Montreal Protocol, either. In 2007, parties to the treaty agreed to a Micronesian plant to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs, another CFC substitute that is also a potent global warming agent. The U.S., along with Canada and Mexico, have  submitted a similar proposal for an HFC phase-down.

A final decision on the latest amendment won't be reached until November, when treaty talks take place in Geneva, Switzerland.