Sustainable cooling solutions are available — but require much greater investment
Industry support and trade requirements made the difference
At a time of so many dramatic climate disasters, the recent bi-partisan Senate approval of a climate treaty, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, received much less attention than it deserves.
On September 21st, by a vote of 69–21, the U.S. became the 138th country to ratify the Amendment. The treaty is so far the only international agreement providing a quantified timetable binding signatories to reduce emissions of a greenhouse gas. It also won approval with the votes of 21 Republicans, who usually show little interest in climate issues.
Ratification was a big deal for the climate. As the graphic indicates, HFCs are a greenhouse gas widely used in air conditioning. Emissions of the chemical have been growing at 10–15 percent per year — ironically partly due to the growing demand for air conditioning in response to rising temperatures. The treaty requires developed nations to reduce their production and consumption of HFCs 85 percent by 2036. (Developing nations are given more time to adjust, a principle adopted in the Protocol in 987.) HFCs are up to several thousand times more potent warming agents than CO2 but have a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere, about 15 years versus centuries. (For at least a decade, reducing fossil fuel burning will do nothing to reduce warming due to reductions in sulfates which have a cooling effect.) Cutting HFC emissions will therefore reduce warming much more quickly than replacing fossil fuels helping to avoid dangerous tipping points the next two decades. Replacement of HFCs with the many climate-friendly alternatives available can avoid up to 0.5C warming by 2100 and much more if combined with efforts to improve the energy efficiency of air conditioning equipment.
So why did the Kigali Amendment achieve the two-thirds majority required for ratification of treaties given the otherwise insurmountable lack of Republican support for climate agreements? The simple answer is strong support from the business community. Manufacturers of air conditioning equipment had accepted the need to transition to climate-friendly chemicals some years ago and with their support domestic legislation had been passed in 2020 mandating the required reductions on the Kigali timetable. Yet without ratification of the treaty U.S. companies could have been unable to export — the Protocol restricts trade in regulated chemicals with non-Parties. And the biggest and most rapidly growing markets for air conditioners are outside the U.S., in countries that have ratified the Amendment, particularly China and India.
Republicans with little concern for climate and the environment were thus convinced by economic arguments. An industry analysis concluded that by 2027, the Kigali amendment would increase U.S. manufacturing jobs by 33,000, increase U.S. exports by $5 billion, and reduce imports by nearly $7 billion. Not coincidentally, some Republican states had significant affected industries. One of the strongest supporters was Senator Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, the home state to two of the chemical companies producing the alternative refrigerants.
Can the Kigali success story be repeated for other sources of greenhouse gas emissions? A book I co-authored about the climate threat from HFCs and other climate super pollutants, Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!, contends it could. As my co-author Durwood Zaelke recently stated, “When you line up business goals with environmental goals, you can get bipartisan support at home and North-South support globally for stronger multilateralism.” In this instance U.S. economic and environmental interests aligned in uncommon ways. The affected companies were able to make the required changes in their products at an affordable cost and by doing so increase their expected sales.
Another lesson may be the benefits of working out industry-specific solutions cooperatively with representatives of the affected companies. This is an approach central to the implementation of the Montreal Protocol but has not been a feature of the climate convention. Carbon-intensive products like cement, iron, and steel — all with significant international trade — also may be good targets for negotiation of comparable agreements and some efforts to move in this direction are underway.
The Montreal Protocol has been by far the most effective source of climate action and the Kigali Amendment provides a model for achieving urgently needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.