Photographer: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Worst Climate Threat You Never Heard of Is Stronger Than CO2

  • HFCs are thousands of times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat
  • As envoys debate a phase-out, some countries balk at cost

The biggest global warming battle you’ve never heard of kicks off in Dubai this weekend.

Climate negotiators from across the globe will gather in the Persian Gulf city to debate how to get rid of hydrofluorocarbons -- a class of hundreds of artificial chemicals used in refrigerators, air-conditioners, fire suppressants and other widely used products. While less common than greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or methane, HFCs can be thousands of times more potent, pound for pound, at heating up the planet.

HFCs' global-warming potential
HFCs' global-warming potential

They’re also gaining in popularity as demand for air conditioning, refrigeration and other services is expected to soar in developing countries in coming decades. The result: HFCs are now the world’s fastest growing greenhouse gases and projected to rise even more in the future.

A worldwide agreement coming out of the United Nations-run meeting in Dubai to quickly get rid of HFCs may keep the equivalent of 100 billion tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2050 and avoid a half-degree Celsius of warming by century’s end, proponents say. That’s about a quarter of the 2-degrees Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) limit that scientists say is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“If we can avoid 100 billion tons and eliminate a half-degree of warming, that’s a pretty good down payment," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Washington-based Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

A global deal is proving elusive, however. Poorer countries and those in warmer climates have concerns about the reliability and expense of substitutes, which can cost ten times as much as the climate-threatening chemicals they replace. Advocates fear a new ban may boost the black market for HFCs. Chemical makers including Chemours Co. have found a significant amount of the refrigerants in use in some regions are labeled as the newer, safer products, but are actually older, cheaper products harmful to the environment.

“The chemical industry is producing literally hundreds of different kinds of HFC blends," said Clare Perry, a senior campaigner for the Environmental Investigations Agency, a nonprofit that tracks environmental crime. “The scope for illegal trade is just enormous."

The U.S. and other industrialized nations are trying to sweeten the pot for reluctant countries with offers of financial aid and research on alternatives. Envoys hope to leave Dubai with at least an agreement in principle to eliminate HFCs, with details to be worked out later, Zaelke said. That, in turn, would boost efforts for a more sweeping deal on greenhouse gases that’s expected to be completed in Paris in December.

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“You could walk into Paris and say we’ve agreed to eliminate one of the six main greenhouse gases in the universe," Zaelke said. “That would be pretty reassuring."

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