Ozone depletion: SA to phase out harmful gases but struggles to find suitable alternatives

2016-10-17 12:30 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town - Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gases are set to be phased out under a historic international deal that experts say could do a huge amount to curb global warming.

Nearly 200 nations have reached a deal, after all-night negotiations over the weekend, to limit the use of greenhouse gases far more powerful than carbon dioxide in a major effort to fight climate change.

The talks on hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, were called the first test of global will since the historic Paris Agreement to cut carbon emissions was reached last year. HFCs are described as the world's fastest-growing climate pollutant and are used in air conditioners and refrigerators. Experts say cutting them is the fastest way to reduce global warming.

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President Barack Obama, in a statement Saturday, called the new deal "an ambitious and far-reaching solution to this looming crisis." The spokesman for UNSecretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it "critically important."

The agreement, unlike the broader Paris one, is legally binding. It caps and reduces the use of HFCs in a gradual process beginning by 2019 with action by developed countries including the United States, the world's second-worst polluter. More than 100 developing countries, including China, the world's top carbon emitter, will start taking action by 2024, when HFC consumption levels should peak.

Speaking at the event Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in Kigali over the weekend South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa says South Africa is committed to meeting its part of the agreement to significantly phase-out of ozone-depleting substances, specific to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Methyl bromide. 

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Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) phase out

Molewa says,"South Africa is in support of the baseline of 2020-2022, with the freeze date of 2024 and a 65% HCFC baseline component. As parties we need to work together to be able to agree on the most ambitious reduction steps and agree on all other aspects of the amendment. We are positive that this can be done in the next day and half."

"We however know that there are some challenges that still needs to be resolved. These include questions relating to alternatives to HFCs and their costs. We urge the assessment panels to work further to find alternatives over time."

According to the department of environmental affairs, South Africa's regulations on the management and phasing out of ozone depleting substances have been enacted and are being implemented. 

"These regulations are an additional tool to ensure that South Africa remains in compliance with the requirements of the Montreal Protocol. We have been able to meet the target of reducing our HCFC consumption by 10% in 2015, and we are committed in making sure that we will meet all our targets."

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Methyl bromide phase out

Methyl bromide phase-out program in the country is progressing effectively, according to Molewa.

We regularly monitor the consumption of Methyl Bromide through the quota allocation system, product stewardship, compliance inspections and licensing system. These measures have helped us to phase out Methyl Bromide in all applications that have alternatives. The control on consumption of both these substances is achieved through an active collaborative effort with the Ministry of Agriculture, South African Revenue Services and International Trade Administration Commission and Industry.

Training programs for customs officials have also been undertaken to make sure that there are no illegal shipments enter SA, however SA has applied for Critical Use Exemption for Methyl Bromide for 2017.

Molwea says earnest efforts have been undertaken to find alternatives, with the Ministry of Agriculture in the process of evaluating applications received from the industry to register alternatives. 

"Even though we did not receive the full complement of our application, we are committed to implementing the Methyl Bromide Option Committee recommendations of relooking our dosage rates and frequency of fumigation." 

What you need to know about this more dangerous Greenhouse gas HFCs: 

What are they?

HFCs are part of a family called F-gases, which have fluorine as a common component. They are mainly used in refrigeration, air conditioners and aerosols.

They are cousins of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) - a notorious substance that depletes the ozone layer, the thin gaseous shield that protects life on Earth from dangerous solar rays.

Why are they being banned?

HFCs were brought in to replace CFCs, which were banned in 1992 under the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer.

HFCs have done their part in the process to heal the ozone, but have become a big problem on their own: they are massively efficient at trapping heat from the Sun. As a result, they are major contributors to global warming.

A molecule of HFC can be nearly 15,000 times more effective at warming than a molecule of carbon dioxide, depending on the type. Most of the HFCs entering the atmosphere come from routine leaks in refrigeration and air conditioning.

How could the ban fight climate change?

Eliminating HFCs could reduce global warming by 0.5 C by 2100, according to a 2015 study by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.

UN members, in the historic Paris Agreement sealed last year, set a goal of curbing global warming to less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels.

At present, Earth is on course for several degrees of warming by 2100, scientists say. This would doom many parts of the planet to worsening floods, droughts, desertification, rising seas and storms.

The Paris deal is voluntary and hedged with uncertainty as to whether countries will ratchet up their efforts to "decarbonise" their economies, moving away from polluting fossil fuels.

Scrapping HFCs would at the least buy some time to make the switch to cleaner sources and boost energy efficiency.

How many HFCs do we produce?

HFC emissions have been projected to grow from around one gigatonne (a billion tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year today, to between four and nine a year by 2050.

The increase is largely due to an expected huge rise in the use of air conditioners in developing countries in the coming decades.

The European Union introduced regulations to control HFCs from 2015 and encourage the use of safer alternatives such as ammonia, water or gases called hydrofluoroolefins.

Switching entails financial costs, which for India and some other developing countries was a sticking point in the negotiations.

What's in the deal?

The agreement takes the form of an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, already deemed one of the most successful environmental agreements ever.

Reached after seven years of negotiations among 197 parties, it sets down three pathways for eliminating HFCs.

Developed countries will start to phase down HFCs by 2019. Developing countries will follow with a freeze in consumption levels in 2024, with some other countries following suit in 2028.

By the late 2040s, all countries are expected to consume no more than 15-20 per cent of their baseline levels. The deal is legally binding, meaning those who break it could face punishment.

Countries also agreed to provide "adequate financing" for HFC reduction, the cost of which is estimated at billions of dollars globally, according to the UN Environmental Programme.

The exact amount of additional funding will be agreed at a meeting in Montreal in 2017. There will also be grants for research on affordable alternatives to HFCs.

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(Additional Reporting AFP)