In a major international step towards battling climate change, 197 nations hammered out a legally binding deal to cut back on the greenhouse gases used in refrigerators and air conditioners.
The deal – which includes the world’s two biggest economies, the United States and China – divides countries into three groups with different deadlines for reducing the use of factory-made hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases, which can be 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change.
“It’s a monumental step forward,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said, as he left the talks in the Rwandan capital of Kigali late on Friday, 14 October.
As Rwanda’s minister for natural resources, Vincent Biruta, began announcing the terms of the deal shortly after sunrise on Saturday, applause from the negotiators who had been up all night drowned out his words.
‘Largest temperature reduction ever achieved’
Under the pact developed nations, including much of Europe and the United States, commit to reducing their use of HFC gases incrementally, starting with a 10 percent cut by 2019 that will increase to 85 percent by 2036.
Many wealthier nations have already begun to reduce their use of HFCs.
Two groups of developing countries will freeze their use of the gases by either 2024 or 2028, and then gradually reduce their use overall. India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and the Gulf countries will meet the later deadline, and are being given more time because they have rapidly expanding middle classes and hot climates. India, for example, feared undercutting its growing industries with too rapid a reduction.
“Last year in Paris, we promised to keep the world safe from the worst effects of climate change. Today, we are following through on that promise,” said UN environment chief Erik Solheim in a statement.
Environmental groups had hoped that the deal could reduce global warming by 0.5° Celsius by the end of this century. This agreement gets about 90 percent of the way there, said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.
This is the “largest temperature reduction ever achieved by a single agreement”, Zaelke’s group said.
The new deal is “equal to stopping the entire world’s fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for more than two years”, said David Doniger, climate and clean air programme director with the Natural Resources Defence Council, in a statement.
The deal is the latest in a series of measures aimed at fighting climate change undertaken over the past month. Last week, the 2015 Paris Agreement passed its required threshold to enter into force after India, Canada and the European Parliament ratified it.
But unlike the Paris Agreement, the Kigali deal is legally binding, has very specific timetables, and has an agreement by rich countries to help poor countries adapt their technologies.
The United Nations says phasing out HFCs will cost billions of dollars.
But a quick reduction in HFCs could be a major contribution to slowing climate change, and could perhaps avoid the 0.5° rise in average temperatures predicted by 2100, scientists say.
Environmental groups had called for an ambitious agreement on cutting HFCs to limit the damage from the roughly 1.6 billion new air conditioning units expected to come on stream by 2050, the result of increased demand from a rapidly expanding middle class in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
The HFC talks build on the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which succeeded in phasing out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), widely used at that time in refrigeration and aerosols.
The aim was to stop the depletion of the ozone layer, which shields the planet from ultraviolet rays that have been linked to skin cancer, cataracts and other health conditions.
With files from France 24, Reuters and The Associated Press