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How the Chemical Industry Joined the Fight Against Climate Change

17 October 2016 | Mitigation

It might seem surprising to find the world’s chemical companies on the front lines of preventing climate change, fighting to disrupt their own industries.

But in a sweeping accord reached on Saturday in Kigali, Rwanda, companies were among the most active backers of a move away from a profitable chemical that has long been the foundation for the fast-growing air-conditioning and refrigeration business.

The companies were driven less by idealism than by intense competition, and a bet that they could create more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Still, some environmentalists say the aggressive move away from hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, provides a template for other industries to follow.

“They learned that without a rule change, their new products couldn’t compete,” said David Doniger, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Washington, D.C. “They woke up and said, ‘The science is real.’”

“We wanted them restricted for purely environmental reasons. The companies wanted them restricted for many other reasons,” including profit, Mr. Doniger said. “But the point is that they had a certain common interest with the international community.”

The chemical industry’s response stands in stark contrast to the foot-dragging, and in many cases the outright obstruction of climate regulations, by the big oil companies.

Some environmentalists contend that the chemical companies were allowed to have too much input into the Kigali deal. They also say the deal could have been more ambitious in timing and scope.

And there are concerns that many producers in countries will not profit as quickly, consolidating the power of the world’s biggest companies. Much of the resistance to the agreement came from China and India, which feared that some of their chemical manufacturers would be shut out, or that their consumers would face higher prices.

The Kigali deal is the latest chapter in what has been at times an environmentally disastrous role played by the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry.

For decades, a class of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were used widely in air-conditioners and refrigerators, as well as in aerosol sprays and cleaning products. But scientists warned that CFCs deplete the ozone layer, which protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Chemical companies first resisted, saying that alternatives were not economically viable. “They were awful, just like the coal industry,” Mr. Doninger said.

But consumer concern about the chemicals led to slumping sales, and a handful of countries banned CFCs. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol agreement was created to completely phase out those chemicals.

The alternatives available at the time, HFCs, were greenhouse gases with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide. Concerns over those chemicals spurred campaigns by environmentalists to phase out HFCs as well.

This time, chemical producers raced to get ahead of any new round of regulations. Even as the switch to HFCs was taking hold in the early 2000s, some companies began research and development programs to study alternatives with far lower warming potential.

Europe tightened its regulations in 2011, with stricter laws aimed at phasing out HFCs in car air-conditioners. Regulators in the United States gave credits to domestic automakers for switching to HFC alternatives.

Options are now available, including systems that use propane or ammonia, and companies throughout the supply chain are racing to adopt them.

Still, some environmentalists caution against what they see as excessive influence by the corporate sector in shaping the way forward for cooling technologies.

Despite the remaining issues, the Kigali deal was an example of an emerging dynamic, where companies pre-empt environmental policy changes by developing more planet-friendly products, then push for regulation that grows that market, environmental experts say.

“More and more companies are looking further and further down the timeline to see what changes they can expect, and what they need to phase out of their products,” said Baskut Tuncak, a lawyer at the United Nations specializing in toxic chemicals.

“It shows regulations do drive innovation,” Mr. Tuncak said. “The more we have a global approach, the better it is, even for businesses.”

 

 

Source: The New York Times