For six years I have been tracking what I regard as a critical weathervane issue when it comes to global environmental cooperation, and the weathervane has just swung in an extremely promising direction. In 2007 I first wrote about the incineration of HFC-23 (a greenhouse gas up to 14,800 times more potent than CO2), by the Jiangsu Meilan Chemical Company and the Changshu 3F Company in China. Under the Kyoto agreement, both had agreed to incinerate this by-product of their HCFC-22 refrigerant manufacturing in return for highly profitable payments under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
Beyond the monitoring problems described as "incompetence" by the British firm charged with auditing the process, I commented on the ramping up of production at both companies resulting from the fact that the CDM payments were far more profitable than the HCFC production itself. In 2010 I again asked why the Chinese Government had not simply banned HCFC production outright as most developed countries had done. The cynical answer was obvious, the CDM payments, which also provided huge royalties directly to the Chinese government, created a perverse disincentive to responsible law-making.
The breakthrough achieved in the last few weeks was China's agreement to entirely phase out the industrial production of HCFCs, funded by up to $385 million through the UN's Montreal Protocol. They will freeze production levels this year, reduce them by 10% within two years, and completely phase-out HCFCs by 2030.
This has been a tough journey. Because the Montreal Protocol deals only with ozone-depleting gases, not greenhouse gases, this important result has been achieved indirectly, as HCFCs are in the former category. Nor has this outcome been accomplished without serious obstacles – including outright blackmail. In 2011, one of China's CDM executives, Xie Fei, threatened: “If there’s no trading of [HFC-23] credits, they’ll stop incinerating the gases”. Had this threat to vent HFC-23 directly to the atmosphere been carried through, it would have constituted a spectacularly egregious act of environmental sabotage.
Instead, an exceptionally important battle has been won, through persistent international pressure. It's important to appreciate its scale. The total reduction of emissions this agreement will achieve has been been calculated as 4.3 billion tonnes CO2e, or equivalent to those from 1.6 billion cars, or approximately half as big again as the world's entire car fleet. The pessimists who decry efforts to bring about an international approach to tackling the threat of global warming, and who excuse national inaction on the grounds that it's a global problem, should take heed.