U.S. And China Aim To Phase Down Use Of Potent Greenhouse Gases Known As HFCs

The United States and China announced on Saturday that they will work together and with other countries to “phase down” the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are extremely potent greenhouse gases. A global phaseout would be the equivalent of cutting 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping just finished a two-day meeting in California initially thought to be more of an unscripted chance for the two leaders to forge a personal relationship than a meeting with any specific policy agenda. This is Xi’s first meeting with Obama as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which is the analogue to the Chinese presidency. Recently China has made news on plans to cut carbon emissions but then appeared to partially walk some of that news back. The fact that powerful greenhouse gases were on the agenda during their talks is a welcome sign. And if the so-called “Group of Two” regularly acts to reduce the use of substances that cause climate change, it makes it much more likely that the rest of the world will agree to do the same.

Congressional Democrats urged the President to bring up HFCs during the meeting in a letter on Wednesday. According to the White House, the specific agreement between China and the U.S. reads:

Regarding HFCs, the United States and China agreed to work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, while continuing to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.

HFCs are used in air conditioning, refrigeration, and if released, stay in the atmosphere for 15 years. Their use has skyrocketed as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the ozone-destroying compounds whose production was banned in 1990 through a global agreement known as the Montreal Protocol. This agreement was signed in 1987 and required reductions in CFC use but an amendment in 1990 required a complete phaseout. Every country in the world is a party to this agreement. At the time, experts saw HCFs (and HCFCs, which were eventually regulated under the Montreal Protocol) as “one of the best substitutes for reducing stratospheric ozone loss.” In the 1990s, all new vehicle air conditioning systems began to use HFCs.

Yet HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide is the most famous human emission that causes climate change, other so-called “super pollutants” are responsible for nearly half of global warming. HFCs are one of these super pollutants. Automobile manufacturers are aware that the air conditioning systems they sell contain substances that do this, and they encourage consumers to recycle their vehicles so that chemicals like HFCs can be reclaimed.

Projected HFC use in 2009. (Credit: NOAA)

Yet leaks happen, and HFC use has skyrocketed with no end in sight, particularly in developing countries. Environmental groups began flagging the potentially catastrophic warming effects of HFCs in the last decade, and offered cheaper, natural, efficient alternatives to using HFCs as refrigerants.

California’s Air Resources Board has already taken action to limit the leakage of HFCs in mobile air conditioning through the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. The U.S., Canada, and Mexico have offered an amendment to the Montreal Protocol for the past four years that would “gradually reduce consumption and production and control byproduct emissions of HFCs in all countries.” Now China is on board. A global effort to phase down the use of the harmful chemical could possibly cut the equivalent of 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. This amount is nearly equal to two years’ worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions.


John Podesta, chair of the Center for American Progress, and former White House Chief of staff, released the following statement today:

“The American-Chinese agreement to phase down HFCs is great news for the planet. Phasing down HFCs under the protocol will reduce climate change pollution equivalent to 100 billion tons of C02 emissions by 2050. This measure will avoid .5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The global goal is to limit temperature increase caused by climate change to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and we’ve already warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius. Phasing out HFCs is hugely important given the disastrous increase in extreme weather and public health threats we are already experiencing.

“To date, China has been a key hold out to getting a deal on phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol which the U.S. has been pushing for the last four years. President Barack Obama deserves great credit for his leadership and I applaud President Xi’s decision to commit Chinese leadership to help solve the climate crisis. This HFC agreement is a critical step to fulfill President Obama’s promise to respond to the threat of climate change, as he said in his inaugural address.”

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43 Responses to U.S. And China Aim To Phase Down Use Of Potent Greenhouse Gases Known As HFCs

  1. Will Fox says:

    This infographic puts things into perspective:

    (grey column on the right)

  2. Ken says:

    And replace them with what? HFCs replaced CFCs, and weren’t quite as useful, but were close. So what do they plan to use to replace HFCs? I recall ammonia was used as an early refrigerant, but it’s poisonous and flammable. Is there some other class of chemical I don’t know about?

  3. Raul M. says:

    Look at EPA news, they have found out how to make some chemical that is recommended. Back in 2010, I think.

  4. Joan Savage says:

    UNEP shows HFCs contributed about 1100 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2010, which is similar to the 2% figure on the chart you supplied.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    That was supposed to be a reply to Will Fox.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    A good start but when are we going to get an agreement on ALL GHGs? ME

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    A good start but when are we going to get an agreement on ALL GHGs? ME

  8. Sasparilla says:

    Thanks Will, excellent graphic. Puts things into perspective…HFC’s are 2% of greenhouse gas emissions.

    But with a replacement waiting, I’ll take any little victory we can get…

  9. Sasparilla says:

    “President Barack Obama deserves great credit for his leadership and I applaud President Xi’s decision to commit Chinese leadership to help solve the climate crisis.”

    Wow, listening to Podesta you’d think President Obama just solved the climate crisis.

    Somebody better tell these guys that HFC’s are just 2% of GHG emissions and be sure to tell Obama that the science is in on CO2 emissions (based on his statement the other day he doesn’t know this). That said, I’ll take any little victory.

  10. Spike says:

    I have a Greenfreeze freezer which has worked well for many years:

  11. Spike says:

    Be good to see more vigorous efforts on SF6 – according to EPA:

    The electric power industry uses roughly 80% of all SF6 produced worldwide. Ideally, none of this gas would be emitted into the atmosphere. In reality significant leaks occur from aging equipment, and gas losses occur during equipment maintenance and servicing. With a global warming potential 23,900 times greater than CO2 and an atmospheric life of 3,200, one pound of SF6 has the same global warming impact of 11 tons of CO2. In 2002, U.S. SF6 emissions from the electric power industry were estimated to be 14.9 Tg CO2 Eq.

  12. Superman1 says:

    Remember Anderson’s temporal analysis: what we do in the next few decades will determine whether or not we survive. This agreement reduces what is now about 2% of GHG at a rate of about 2.5%/year; better than nothing, but will not affect the big picture.

  13. Superman1 says:

    At the same time that Australia terminates its coal exports, and leaves its newly-found fossil reserves in the ground, untouched. Get the picture!

  14. Raul M. says:

    Yes I know, and most criminals fight when they know they are about to be caught or are caught. The criminal justice system provides nice psychological alignment studies. Knowing that the weather will take advantage of forcings should help the criminal justice system to understand that weather may happen at any location on the surface of our world and how unprepared they are for weather fights. Cause how could one fight the weather? It’s a before and after kind of deal. So 3,200 years, the deal is that the sf6 cools metal so very quickly that the metal can be reworked immediately. Once it is wasted into the air then the other starts, you know, Eearth warming so that one may work metals more easily without any additional forcing, cause it gets so hot out there.

  15. BillD says:

    To answer my own question, there were two sentences about the discussion on HFCs on page three of my Sunday paper, in an item titled about Obama criticizing China for the recent hacking of US commercial and military secrets.

  16. rollin says:

    For once looking ahead, that is good. However, this is the easy fruit to pick, now how about getting serious about the real problems from fossil fuel burning.
    Picking a the edges will not mitigate our problems. If we can only agree on the easy stuff, it is game over.

  17. Superman1 says:

    And, that 2% will be phased out over forty years, so it’s an average of 1% for the next forty years. Given we need on the order of many tens of percent NOW if we want to have any chance of avoiding catastrophe, the agreement is essentially meaningless. And, in case no one noticed, it uses the painless approach of substituting one chemical for another; no sacrifices required!

  18. Superman1 says:

    “If we can only agree on the easy stuff, it is game over.” Given the technical, economic, and sociopolitical evidence, in any other sphere of endeavor, that conclusion would have been long obvious. However, in climate change, the truth seems to be the first casualty.

  19. fj says:

    Yes, this is a great critical step but the true critical step is the outright determination to act on accelerating climate change at wartime speed on the largest possible scale which would include this.

  20. fj says:

    Humanity will soar when this totally positive disruptive moment is achieved.

  21. Ryan Koronowski says:

    All good points, and HFCs are currently a small share of total emissions compared to CO2 and others. But with HFCs on track to expand in use so dramatically in the next few decades around the globe, I think it’s a welcome step to arrest that development and allow systems to replace it with more natural options (check out the Greenpeace paper I link to for some possibilities).

    I’m curious to see how quickly this moves the rest of the nations that will need to agree to cutting HFCs. We certainly need much faster reductions in other areas but this is good news that to most was not very expected. If Obama and Xi find progress in working on these issues, it may bode well for other carbon emissions reduction agreements. Which need to happen, and quickly.

  22. fj says:

    The fossil fuel industry divests from fossil fuels.

  23. fj says:

    Huge trillion dollar financial instruments secured by the future of humanity.

  24. fj says:

    Poor people first eradicates poverty.

  25. Superman1 says:

    “accelerating climate change at wartime speed”. If this is a ‘war’, we need a funding/resource base, a strategic plan, an infrastructure, a functioning logistics chain, a unified populace, and motivated troops. Where are they, and how long will it take to emplace each of these critical elements? if we fought WWII with this level of preparation, we’d be speaking German and Japanese now.

  26. fj says:


    Apparently, you do not understand what is being proposed at a very high general level and since difficult problems have proven effective in raising intelligence you are cordially invited rack your brains and attempt to drill down each line item to answer your own questions.

  27. fj says:

    Difficult problems raise intelligence, so rack your brains to drill down on each line item to answer your own questions.

  28. fj says:

    Superman1, there is sufficient info to answer your own questions.

  29. Superman1 says:

    So, from your perspective, this is somewhat analogous to the USA and North Koreans agreeing on the shape of the table sixty years ago, signaling that they’re both ready to get down to serious business?

  30. Omega Centauri says:

    Lets put things in perspective. If we just solved 2% of the issue, we’ve had a good week. If we solved another 2% each week for a year, we’ve had a good year. If HFCs were going to expand like that graph showed, and we’ve headed that off -we’ve had a good month or two.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In a week when it was revealed that the USA is spying on, ie hacking, the entire planet, but that’s OK, because it is only the rest of humanity being hacked, not the Holy Homeland.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The only possible way to save humanity from self-destruction through multiform ecological collapse, economic implosion and resource depletion is through total global co-operation. Unfortunately, the West, led by the USA, is preferring to keep up its centuries long war of domination against the rest of humanity, interfering in, sanctioning, subverting and attacking every country that dares to have a political, social or economic system not to the liking of the Empire. In such a situation, the required co-operation will not occur, and the path to a global war, exacerbated by global Collapse, lies before us.

  33. dumbstruck says:

    Conservative heads are exploding….but they don’t understand why…

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    That sounds absolutely horrific Spike, ME

  35. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I have just listened to Hugh White put this and other minor agreements into their economic and geo-political contexts. His view is that America and BHO seem lost at sea with the challenge that China’s long term vision presents and that there was actually very little ‘meeting of minds’, ME

  36. Superman1 says:

    “you do not understand what is being proposed at a very high general level”. What is being ‘proposed’ are random disjointed statements that have no linkages to the real world. Pure nonsense!

  37. Superman1 says:

    “Lets put things in perspective.” Remember Anderson’s analysis; the time when these measures are implemented is of extreme importance. The average over the next forty years is 1%, not 2% (start from zero and work up to two), and we really need those reductions now. And, we don’t know the properties of the replacement fluid.

  38. David Lewis says:

    This graphic is from WMO 2011 Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion:2010

    It shows the dramatic effect of getting rid of the gases covered by the Montreal Protocol as well as the projected problem with HFCs, in units of gigatonnes CO2e, compared to CO2 I believe.

    Doing anything about HFCs is not insignificant.

  39. Peter Anderson says:

    There is so much bad news, that all of us sometimes become almost desperate to find some glimmer of good news to keep us going. But, there are so many malevolent forces out there from the Koch Brothers and their tobacco hardened PR flacks on down, it is even more important to know what is really happening. This news item is a great example that points out why it is important to know the underlying facts to interpret its true meaning if we are to have any chance to prevail.

    China has been one of the largest and worst scammers of cap and trade under the UN’s CDM program (Clean Development Mechanism), in which undeveloped countries – yes like China!!! – undertake local measures to reduce estimated greenhouse gas emissions and get paid for their efforts.

    China thereupon deliberately with malice and aforethought set out to ramp up production to produce more HFCs, which have 1500 times the warming impact of CO2 and hence distort the trade mechanism beyond recognition when abused, and then get paid to stop producing it — who the hell do they think they are, Wall Street Bankers like Goldman Sachs. (As a sidenote, India is getting tens of millions of dollars of CDM credits for building coal plants!)

    China has been jockeying with the World Bank for years to keep this scam going because there is a lot of push back in view of its utter outrageousness that was so bad even the proverbial diplomatic corps who loathe ruffling feathers were forced to roust themselves and put the matter under review. So wouldn’t you know what happened next. The terms described in the detailed articles on this Summit mentioned that in return for considering, thinking and considering some more whether to phase out HFC’s by 2030 – 17 years from now – they will be allowed to pursue their scam of deliberately making more of it in order to be paid to stop for those 17 additional years without any more push backs, at which point, in view of how utterly stupid we are, they could very well turn around and tell us that they’re still not ready and want to string this who scam out for another 20 years, that is if their once tillable land hasn’t burned up leaving a hulking nation of 2 billion starving people by then.

    Earlier, some drew similar hope from China’s National Development and Reform Commission professed consideration of an accelerated timetable until their greenhouse gases emission will peak to 2025. Instead I saw far more substantively about what China is actually doing, not planners’ ruminations, in a very small little clip on the very back page of the Wall Street Journal that mentioned the country is anticipating a huge surge in SUV sales because – and of course none of us in the US will have any idea how this came about – there is this “oddity” in China’s mileage standards that excludes SUVs – gosh golly gee I wonder how that “oddity” happened?

    If we’re going to win, we have to know and raise all bloody hell when we’ve been skunked and not slink away from that essential responsibility for fear it will discourage our troops from the absence of good news. Yes, the truth may be discouraging. But, to play that game of deluding ourselves as a opiate to keep going makes us an active accomplice in making things far worse.

    Our only real hope is through grassroots actions of active non-violent non-cooperation with the permitting and movement of the fossil fuels through our economy that are leading to the demise of a livable world capable of sustaining a civilization for our children’s and their children. The sooner we all come to grips with the reality that our established institutions are incapable of helping, the sooner we can learn where are energies need to flow.

  40. nellieh says:

    Why do we hear so little about tar sand oil and only about the pipeline? This goop is probably the worst carbon crap emitter of all fossil fuels. There hasn’t been a refinery built in two or more generations and is why they are ALWAYS BREAKING DOWN. If The Koch Brothers are so intent on recovering this stuff, And it has a need to be refined, Just build a GD refinery where the tar sand is!

  41. fj says:

    Lester Brown’s very accessible high school level “Plan B 4.0” outlines three ways social change is achieved and also discusses the positively disruptive savings of net zero transport; and, action on climate change at wartime speed.

    It’s been around for a while. His update is “World on Edge”.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Most of our Rightwingers seem to possess craniums that are imploding, not exploding. Something to do with vacuums, I believe, which is also why ‘Nature abhors’ them, and has taken physiognomic revenge.

  43. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Hugh White has definitely gone ‘off reservation’ lately, which is why the Rightwing homunculi love smearing him. The Americans play Monopoly, the Russians chess and the Chinese wei-chí.