Who Is Fooling Whom When It Comes to Combating Climate Change?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Here's the scam. A Chinese company manufactures hydrofluorocarbons, the refrigerant gases responsible for the ozone hole and climate change. The gases can efficiently be turned into cash, either by using them in products like refrigerators or air conditioners or, more lucratively, by destroying them. In the early part of the last decade, Chinese manufacturers of HFCs made more and more of them--more than necessary for use even in the rapidly growing Communist country--because the international market for buying and selling the right to pollute with greenhouse gases awarded credits for their destruction. The gas could be made more cheaply--and then destroyed--than the carbon credits that resulted from their destruction were worth. All told, Chinese manufacturers netted billions of dollars in profits from an international effort meant to pay for developing countries to reduce pollution via projects such as preventing forests from being cut down or building more expensive renewable energy projects.

So when the Chinese agree to phase out HFCs, as their President Xi Jinping apparently did with U.S. President Barack Obama, they should be applauded--and shamed. Such cons are the most insidious reason why the world is not on track to restrain global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius, and could see average temperatures more than 5 degrees C higher if more efforts are not made.

In 2012, greenhouse gas pollution of all kinds, but particularly carbon dioxide, set another all-time record. The International Energy Agency estimates that CO2 levels hit 31.6 million metric tons last year, which also helped concentrations in the atmosphere touch 400 parts-per-million this spring. And while China saw the smallest increase in its emissions in a decade--just 300 million metric tons--that is still nearly half of the global increase and more than the emissions of Poland in total.

So it is good news that Obama and Xi could agree to do something about such pollution in their shirt sleeves this past weekend. Though the exact details have yet to be worked out or agreed, the two countries pledged to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons. If joined by all the other countries that still employ HFCs, the equivalent of roughly three years worth of global emissions from fossil fuel burning could be avoided--some 90 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Of course, the agreement is for a gradual phaseout so those two years worth of emissions will be saved in bits and pieces over the next 30 years. And, remember, much of China's HFCs are the result of the aforementioned long-running scam. Now that the jig is up on that particular scam, the Chinese are seemingly happy to commit to a gradual phaseout of the use of the refrigerant chemical--a concession the country, along with India, had been resisting for the last decade. For all that time, there have been replacements available. Capitalism trumps the environment, even if you are a Chinese communist party member.

There is good news out there. Europe and particularly the U.S. saw emissions decline; the former due to an emissions trading scheme (that helped pay for the Chinese scam) and the latter thanks to a complex blend of factors, including the switch from burning cheap coal to make electricity to burning the cheap natural gas released via fracking. Oh, and let's not forget the Great Recession. The combined drop of 250 million metric tons of CO2 is potentially enough to deflect the world from the highest emissions scenario envisioned by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to a slightly less warm one, as noted by climate scientist Dana Nuccitelli on his Climate Consensus blog.

On the other hand, Japan saw its greenhouse gas emissions rise by 70 million metric tons, thanks to a switch from generating electricity via nuclear fission to burning natural gas for that purpose. We're going to need yet more help from better energy technologies to meet any kind of climate goal, let alone stay on this slightly less perilous emissions trajectory.

As the world turns its thoughts back to economic growth, the IEA suggests four policies that might help restrain this continuing growth in greenhouse gas pollution in the next decade. First and foremost: improve the energy efficiency of new and old buildings worldwide, as well as the fuel consumption of both the world's vehicles and its factories. The methane currently leaking into the sky from coal mines and the wells and pipelines of the oil and gas industry must be captured and burned or put to use. Subsidies for burning coal, oil and natural gas must be eliminated to discourage use of the fossil fuels. And new coal-fired power plants should be limited (if not outright banned) in favor of renewables and natural gas.

With international climate negotiations working toward some form of agreement in 2015 that would only come into effect at the end of the decade, the world is "drifting off track," in the words of IEA executive director Marina van der Hoeven at the press conference releasing the analysis. "But the problem is not going away." Instead of dithering for a decade and paying for phantom emission reductions, the kinds of emissions declines seen in the U.S. must be repeated the world over. And that will take everything from CO2 capture and storage in Europe to more nuclear power in China, as well as the new plan to phase out HFCs. The rest is hot air from a bunch of flimflam artists.

Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
© 2013 ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved.