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Environment

170 Countries Agree to Ban HFCs in Landmark Climate Change Agreement

Flickr: U.S. Geological Survey

In what Secretary of State John Kerry is calling “the single most important step” in fighting climate change, more than 170 countries have agreed to ban hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), a chemical often used in refrigerators and air conditioning units.

Heads of state from around the world met in Kigali, Rwanda, on Friday and committed to phase out 80-85% of HFCs by 2047 in a landmark agreement deal to prevent further damaging effects of climate change.

If followed, the deal will result in the “equivalent of about 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050” being removed.

“It is likely the single most important step we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet and limit the warming for generations to come,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, who represented the US in the talks.

The world’s top two highest polluters, China and the US, signed onto the agreement. So did many developing countries who are rapidly upping the use of cooling units.

The “an ambitious and far reaching solution,” as President Barack Obama said of the deal, will have stricter and more defined rules around banning HFCs:

- Wealthier countries are agreeing to stop production altogether.

- There are timelines and targets to replace HFCs with alternatives shown to be less harmful for the planet.

- Countries who  go against their promises will face sanctions.

- Developing countries will get a lending hand from wealthier countries to purchase the environmentally-friendlier alternatives to HFCs.

Some African countries who are largely affected by climate change-induced drought and flooding have gone above and beyond by making the same mid-level commitments as more developed nations.

“Africa is a continent that is deeply vulnerable to climate change,” said Vincent Biruta, Rwanda’s minister of natural resources. “We are witnessing disastrous droughts — our people are losing lives. We need to address climate change if we are to address poverty.”

Prior to the agreement, scientists warned that phasing out HFCs was crucial to keep warming temperatures below 3.6°F (2°C) by 2100. HFCs account for about 0.9°F of the target to mitigate global warming.

The agreement was seven years in the making. HFCs became common after ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) were phased out by the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Though the Montreal Protocol was successful —  as the Ozone layer is healing —  turned out that HFCs came with their own bad news for the environment.

Though the amount of HFCs released by humans into the atmosphere is small, HFCs are known as a “super greenhouse gas.” The chemical compound traps heat 1,000 times quicker than carbon dioxide. Compared to COP21, the specific targets of this deal to ban HFCs could do more to prevent climate change than any previous agreement.

This deal is great news for all countries. Having this many countries come together taking major steps toward a healthier planet for future generations is historic. The meaning behind the agreement reached in Kigali send the message that slowing climate change is priority for all.

As Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Program Erik Solheim said:

"This is about much more than the ozone layer and HFCs. It is a clear statement by all world leaders that the green transformation started in Paris is irreversible and unstoppable."