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Ozone's joined-up climate

Richard Black | 14:14 UK time, Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Remember the unseemly rush to biofuels? The sudden impetus from all kinds of bodies including UN institutions, the EU, and governments such as the UK that began about four years ago to ramp up the growing of fuel crops and to adopt liquids made from them as the low-carbon transport panacea?

Schematic_of_aerosol_can_and_worldWhile the enthusiasm was understandable given the absence at the time of other low-carbon transport "solutions", the thinking was also full of holes.

Some biofuel systems would actually increase emissions, peoples' rights (particularly in rural areas of developing countries) were potentially compromised, and the impacts on biodiversity of coating the surface of the planet in monocrop plantations were also potentially horrible.

You can argue that this state of affairs would never have come about if "the environment" had not been chopped up and partitioned into segments called "climate change", "forests", "biodiversity" and so on.

More holistic thinking - more integrated thinking structures at national and international level - would perhaps have ensured that the downsides were seen earlier in the day, and there would have been no over-eager policy-making and subsequent retrenchment.

Something potentially analogous has been happening with the international agreements that are supposed to deal with climate change and ozone depletion - the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) and the Montreal Protocol.

The latter has met with some success at progressively phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals such as cholorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and methyl bromide.

The job isn't done yet - not least because developing countries have needed more time to make changes than industrialised nations - but it's been going in the right direction, with CFCs themselves due to be eliminated this year apart from a few uses where there's no alternative.

However, there's been a problem. The replacement chemicals, HCFCs, are - like CFCs themselves - potent greenhouse gases; molecule for molecule they are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. They also cause some ozone depletion, though far less than CFCs.

Three years ago, governments decided to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs too, with target dates of 2020 for industrialised countries and 2030 for the developing world.

But the most likely replacements for HCFCs - HFCs - would still contribute substantially to the man-made greenhouse.

One study published last year concluded that if there were to be a meaningful global agreement to tackle greenhouse gases such as CO2, then by 2050, HFCs could be contributing anywhere between 9% and 45% to the man-made greenhouse effect.

A companion study concluded that by reducing CFC emissions to the atmosphere, the Montreal Protocol had done more by accident to curb global warming than the Kyoto Protocol had achieved intentionally.

Antarctic_ozone_holePutting all this together led some to conclude that the Montreal Protocol should explicitly be used as another tool to combat climate change - that curbing the "super-greenhouse" HCFCs and HFCs as soon as possible would be a relatively cheap and effective "quick hit".

Well, following a meeting last weekend of the body that funds projects in developing countries to replace ozone-destroying systems - the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol - the notion appears to be all set to come into reality.

Essentially the organisation decided that when it funds a project that replaces HCFCs with something else, it'll pay up to 25% extra if that something else is not an HFC-based system.

Low-warming replacements likely to qualify for the additional funding include, ironically, systems based on CO2, as well as ammonia and hydrocarbons - all methods that were around before the widespread adoption of CFCs, and which look set to outlive them.

The Multilateral Fund has a good track record of raising and disbursing money - without that, there would be far more ozone depletion going on than there is - so as things stand, there's no reason to believe the switch to low-warming systems won't now begin.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, the NGO that currently follows the ozone trail in most detail, the decision "provides an incentive for countries to choose low global warming potential (GWP) and energy efficient replacements instead of high-GWP HFCs when phasing out HCFCs".

I can almost hear the exclamations of incredulity - "what, joined-up thinking across the UN?" - but there it is, it appears to be happening.

What lessons for other initiatives? The big mover at the moment is the push to agree a regime for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) under the climate convention.

But there are complaints that the negotiations, as they move forward, are sidelining concerns about biodiversity and the rights of indigenous peoples.

The lesson of biofuels, surely, is that you narrow the picture at your peril - and the lesson of the Multilateral Fund is that where there are easy inclusive wins, you should grab them.

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