Focus on an historic climate agreement that has gone almost unnoticed on the margins of COP22: the amendment adopted in Kigali in October 2016 aims to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs or F-gases). This is a mini-environmental revolution that could also be of major interest to the private sector.

The first concrete steps to combat global warming have been taken in Africa. After the success of COP 21 and ratification of the Paris Agreement, the focus now switches to Morocco which is set to host COP 22. But it is in Rwanda that the Paris Agreement has actually been been applied first. Three weeks before COP 22 kicks off in Marrakesh, 197 states came together in Kigali for the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol.

The signatories to the Kigali Amendment have just committed to phasing out HFC High Global Warming Potential (GWP) Gases which can generate 10,000 times more GHG emissions than CO2. This amendment has the potential to knock 0.5°C off global warming forecasts, i.e., one-quarter of the 2°C target enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

HFCs: enormous global warming potential and more and more widely used

HFCs – also known as F-gases – are used in refrigeration systems, aerosols and certain types of insulation foam. We encounter them in everyday products like deodorants and domestic fridges as well as in hotel air-conditioning and commercial refrigeration systems so a broad range of sectors are affected: industry, tourism, retail, commercial real estate, etc.

HFCs are also the gases whose emissions are increasing most rapidly – by 10% to 15% a year – on the back of massive growth in air conditioning, especially in Asia and the Middle East.

Hakima El Haite, Morocco’s Environment Minister, believes that “a global shift towards concrete climate action has taken place”

The agreement signed in Kigali amends the 1987 Montreal Protocol which required all signatories to implement climate mitigation measures or face sanctions. It is therefore global in its scope, binding and applicable immediately.

This means that all sectors affected by the agreement will have to deploy considerable technical and financial resources to upgrade their equipment. Consequently, signatories have sought to stagger implementation over time in line with adaptation capabilities: richer countries (the US and Europe) will implement the amendment beginning in 2019 while the most proactive emerging economies (i.e., China and African countries) will do so in 2024. Other emerging economies (India and the Gulf States) will only begin implementation in 2028.

Alternatives to F-gases already exist

The key challenge in implementing this agreement revolves around the gases chosen to replace the High Global Warming Potential (GWP) HFCs. These were actually used instead of CFCs – the gases responsible for the hole in the ozone layer – which were phased out under the Montreal Protocol. So it is crucial to ensure that the gases that replace HFCs will not hurt the environment as well.

Current alternatives to High GWP HFCs include:

  • certain types of HFCs with lower GWP. While low and ultra-low GWP HFCs are a first solution, these synthesis gases do still have an impact on the environment.
  • natural refrigerant gases such as isobutane, ammonia and CO2 inter alia. Take an example: thanks to the EU’s F-gas Directive (EU No. 517/2014), European fridge manufacturers have already replaced 95% of HFC 134a (i.e., high GWP) with isobutane by adapting security systems in order to avoid any risks of explosion.

An unprecedented opportunity for business to take concrete action on climate change

A number of private initiatives have already tackled the whole issue of phasing out High GWP HFCs.

In late 2010, members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a network of major retailers that includes Walmart, Carrefour, Intermarché, The Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, etc., approved a resolution to gradually phase out High GWP HFCs. Members installed new refrigeration systems in over 4,000 stores, drinks machines and production units. Despite the significant financial outlay and organisational changes involved, the commitment was a big success and a fresh resolution was signed in October 2016 committing members to (i) use only natural refrigerant gases or ultra-low GWP HFCs when available, (ii) encourage their suppliers to do likewise, (ii) reduce the environmental impact of existing equipment (by improving energy efficiency and minimising leaks), and (iv) track progress.

So the Kigali Amendment is a real opportunity for those businesses and financial backers who decide to invest in deploying these measures ahead of schedule. The climate impact of eliminating HFCs is so huge that those businesses that do take concrete steps to do so will be able to pride themselves on having a genuinely pro-active and effective climate policy.