China, US take a step on climate change, target one type of greenhouse gas

June 8th, 2013 | by Ian James | Comments

Ahead of President Obama’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, we offered a prediction in this blog that it seemed likely climate change would take a backseat to other issues such as North Korea and U.S. concerns about cyberespionage. But that analysis now appears to have been at least partly off. As the talks ended, the first announcement of a concrete agreement between the leaders focused on climate change.

The White House said in a statement that Obama and Xi had agreed on “an important new step to confront global climate change.” It said the two countries will “work together and with other countries to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.”

The White House said that such a global phase down of HFCs “could potentially reduce some 90 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050, equal to roughly two years worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions.”

HFCs are potent greenhouse gases and are used in refrigerators and air conditioners as well as aerosol propellants and fire retardants. As explained here by the EPA, these chemicals were developed to take the place of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) because unlike those two classes of chemicals, they don’t deplete the ozone layer. Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which aims to protect the ozone later, CFCs and HCFCs are being phased out.

HFCs make their way into the atmosphere through leaks or the discarding of equipment in which they are used, and reducing the amounts that escape into the atmophere can help lessen their impact on global warming.

The White House didn’t spell out specifics of how the two governments will lessen emissions of HFCs. It’s also unclear what other steps the Chinese and U.S. governments might consider to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which by far account for the largest share of greenhouse gases.

As shown in this pie chart, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels makes up more than half of greenhouse gas emissions, while F-gases account for a tiny sliver – about 1 percent.

Nevertheless, when Obama answered questions from reporters on Friday night, he expressed a willingness to work with China to do more.

“Neither country by itself can deal with the challenge of climate change,” Obama said. “That’s an issue that we’ll have to deal with together. China as the largest country, as it continues to develop, will be a larger and larger carbon emitter unless we find new mechanisms for green growth. The United States, we have the largest carbon footprint per capita in the world; we’ve got to bring down our carbon levels in order to accommodate continued growth. And so that will translate then into opportunities for specific work around green technologies and research and development, and interactions between our scientists so that we can, together, help advance the goal of a sustainable planet, even as we continue to grow and develop.”

Referring to his conversations with Xi on various subjects, Obama said their “broad understandings” will be refined further through more discussions between their governments. Time will tell whether their talks and their stroll together in the gardens of Sunnylands will lead to more concrete steps.

Some might ask whether the scorching weather in the Coachella Valley prompted the leaders to think a bit more about climate change. It appears that the agreement on HFCs had been in the works since before the meeting, but it turned out that Obama and Xi arrived in the desert on the hottest day yet this year, with a near-record high of 114 degrees on Friday in Palm Springs.

And the blistering weather had some people talking about climate change on the sidelines of the summit, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who quipped to reporters at the airport: “Welcome to global warming.”

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