Japan launches Fluorocarbons Initiative, contributing to global effort to solve the climate crisis

Air conditioners and refrigerators emit super-pollutants magnitudes worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. Japan and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are working to get rid of them.

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Global demand for air conditioning is expected to dramatically increase with global warming.

As the world warms demand for cooling is growing. Over the next three decades, it’s estimated that 10 air conditioners will be sold every second. Without action, these air conditioners will—ironically—dramatically heat up the planet. If not properly disposed of, the gases used in cooling equipment can dramatically exacerbate global warming, triggering a brutal cycle that increases the demand for cooling, in turn, further warming the planet.

The most common gases used in cooling are manufactured refrigerants known as fluorinated gases. The more prevalent are Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), powerful greenhouse gases, some of which are thousands of times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide (CO2). Moreover, cooling requires immense amounts of energy, gobbling ten percent of global electricity today. This electricity is often generated by coal fired power plants, major emitters of carbon and toxic pollutants. If drastic measures are not taken, emissions from cooling could increase by 90 percent by 2050.

Proper management of the entire HFC lifecycle is critical because HFCs leak out at every stage of a cooling equipment’s lifespan: in factories when it’s built, every day when it’s in use, when it’s being repaired, and at the end of its life when it is destroyed or abandoned in landfills. While the Montreal Protocol, through the Kigali Amendment, is now managing upstream emissions through an HFC phasedown, and groups like the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s new Efficient Cooling Initiative are working to address emissions and efficiency during the useful life of equipment, there has always been a serious management gap in the last stage.

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Japan's Minister for the Environment, Shinjirō Koizumi, speaking at the launch of the Fluorocarbon Initiaitve.

At the recent United Nations Climate Change meeting in Madrid, Spain (COP 25), Japan’s Minister of the Environment, Shinjirō Koizumi, launched the Fluorocarbons Life-Cycle Management Initiative to deal with the issue. Japan recognizes, and hopes other countries also acknowledge, that HFCs are not only a great liability, they’re a great opportunity for stemming catastrophic warming.

“People pay so much attention to CO2 and net zero emissions by 2050. But, can we ignore fluorocarbons?” Mr. Koizumi asked. “If we do not take any further measures, Fluorocarbon emissions will significantly increase and, consequently, the equivalent of 72 billion tons of CO2 from fluorocarbons will be released into the atmosphere. To achieve net zero emission targets, actions for fluorocarbons are inevitable.”

Japan has historically provided strong leadership on the issue. In 2001 it became the first country to legally regulate the recovery and destruction of HFCs when it enacted the Fluorocarbons Recovery and Destruction Law.

Mr. Koizumi also acknowledged that the cooling sector can play another significant role in climate protection by moving toward more energy efficient technologies.

“Japanese companies already have cooling technology with extraordinary energy-saving capacity and they are working to spread this technology and also disseminate energy saving natural refrigerant equipment that doesn’t use fluorocarbons throughout the world,” Mr. Koizumi said.

Speaking at the launch, Alexandra Bonnet, Deputy Director for European and International Affairs at the Ministry for an Ecological and Solidary Transition, France, said the move to efficient cooling is important.

“We stand in the middle of a vicious circle: the world is warming so we need more cooling but that cooling causes more warming,” Ms. Bonnet said. “We need to help countries leapfrog past this vicious circle. Industry has the solutions...we need to find the right ones and deliver them.”

The Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) welcomed Japan’s continued leadership on HFCs.

“Japan has been a real leader within the Coalition since the very beginning. Every time we talk about HFCs, our partners in Japan talk about the importance of managing lifecycle emissions,” said Dan McDougall, Senior Fellow at the CCAC said at the launch. “We look forward to working with Japan to spread this initiative throughout the region and globally.”

Mr. Koizumi announced that they’ve received support from 11 countries and international organizations and 10 Japanese companies and organizations for their initiative.

Chile joined Japan saying that while Chile is not historically a large emitter, the country is seeing its HFC emissions increasing—something that is true of many low- and middle-income countries. Because of this, Chile announced it has started a pilot program on HFC management and are interested in strengthening their Nationally Determined Contribution targets (their international commitment to reduce emissions) by including HFC targets. A representative from the Maldives also expressed support for the initiative.

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Speakers at the launch of the Flurocarbon Life-Cycle Management Initiaitve. Including Alexandra Bonnet (3rd from left) and Dan McDougall (far right).

There is greater momentum than ever before on HFC management and energy efficiency, making now a critical time for concerted action. Japan and the CCAC are committed to continuing to push governments, businesses, and civil society actors to implement policies and regulations to manage HFCs at every stage of their life cycle—measures that will help catalyse the dramatic actions needed across the board and around the world to prevent catastrophic levels of warming.

“Actions to solve global environmental issues began with the success of fluorocarbon measures carried out by all countries to protect the ozone layer,” Mr. Koizumi said. “I believe we can also roll out actions to build a circular economy through life-cycle management, including recovery and destruction, from Japan to the world—starting with fluorocarbons, then plastics, then CO2, and from there to all actions on climate change.”

In 2019, Japan, France, and Nigeria launched the CCAC’s Efficient Cooling Initiative to raise awareness about opportunities for efficient cooling and mobilize political support for action at the highest levels. The initiative hosted two ministerial round tables to discuss the need to phase down HFCs while improving the energy efficiency of cooling equipment in order to achieve the Paris Agreement target to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius. The initiative also works to increase the visibility and accessibility of alternative refrigerants and technologies for all countries.

Japan’s initiative is bolstered by the success of other global compacts that Japan and the CCAC have provided leadership on. The first is the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international resolution to reduce greenhouse gases from the cooling sector, which went into force in January of 2019. Nations promise to reduce HFCs by over 80 percent over the next 30 years and to innovate the energy efficiency of cooling equipment. If fully implemented, it could avoid up to 0.4°C of global warming. The Montreal Protocol itself is considered one of the most successful environmental agreements of all time, having helped almost entirely phase out products that were destroying the ozone layer.

The newest of these agreements is the Biarritz Pledge through which heads of state attending the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France pledged to support CCAC’s Efficient Cooling Initiative by phasing out HFCs and increasing energy efficiency through measures such as developing national cooling plans, using energy performance standards and labelling, and facilitating market access for efficient and affordable cooling technologies. France and Japan are among the 15 countries who have signed the pledge.

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