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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have reached this level for the first time in millions of years. What does this portend? »

obama-and-xi

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Here’s the scam. A Chinese company manufactures hydrofluorocarbons, the refrigerant gases partially responsible for 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.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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Comments 29 Comments

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  1. 1. M Tucker 3:02 pm 06/11/2013

    So CFC’s were replaced with HFC’s. Now HFC’s need to be replaced with what?

    Link to this
  2. 2. ciendolor 3:15 pm 06/11/2013

    Chinese manufacturers systematically engaged in fraud on a global scale? Shocking!

    However, confusing scams, fraud, and kleptomania with capitalism is an unnecessary and incorrect comment: “Capitalism trumps the environment, even if you are a Chinese communist party member.”

    If a price is put on the integrity of our environment, capitalism will factor this in, changing our collective behaviors faster than any other system. We’d should place costs correctly, and not have social scientists, politicians, or similarly unqualified people design markets. Few things cause mayhem more quickly that poorly thought out markets.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Friend of Borneo 3:51 pm 06/11/2013

    Am amazing article!
    0 Likes, 2 comments and 2 tweets. Only

    Typical of how we all cringe and look away when the fingers are pointed at us for driving global warming.

    Link to this
  4. 4. outsidethebox 4:13 pm 06/11/2013

    Every adult knows what has to be done. More nuclear. More fracked gas. More hydroelectric. More windpower. And right now. Yet you will find people who call themselves environmentalists who are opposed to every one of these things. But are all for some phony baloney carbon trading scheme or carbon taxes on some but not on all, to go into government coffers. “Who is fooling who when it comes to combating climate change?” Very good question.

    Link to this
  5. 5. lamorpa 4:18 pm 06/11/2013

    I have yet to see the typical comment tirades by the usual suspects droning on and on and citing their favorite sources (imrightaboutclimatechange.org/imright, etc.) while attacking others’ comments and sources (noimrightaboutclimatechange.edu/noimright, etc.)

    What, are you guys taking the day off?

    Link to this
  6. 6. Owl905 5:17 pm 06/11/2013

    The article is bullseye about early abuses of the carbon-credit market. The credits put into China for building ‘green’ energy sources turned into a subsidy of faster Chinese energy sector growth: it didn’t stop one coal plant construction (only the scarcity of coal supplies constrained the growth).
    (Btw – the replacement to HCFCs are compounds like HF-1234yf, but beware the introduction of alternatives (Mercedes is refusing to use HF-1234yf because of a concern about its flammable potential).)
    But the article is way off on the pixie-dust agenda – infrastructure: retrofitting, redesigning, and maintaining the required efficiency ratings is almost a non-starter except for the worst offenders (and only those that can’t be demolished). New and appropriate building standards have met with powerful and funded resistance in Europe and North America.
    The oil and gas pipeline did their cheapleak-stop thing, and most of the leakage now is spill. The idea of stopping seepage from mines and wells needs to understand more about geology and seepage (start with the Gulf of Mexico seeps, or swamp gas, to get an idea).
    The most practical idea is the end to subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels. But since the pro-pollutionists have successfully killed every plan to respond to the pollution so far, expect the smartest guys in the room to win again. The Carbon Kingdoms could very well be featured in the movie “Too Big to Tame.”

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  7. 7. Carlyle 5:28 pm 06/11/2013

    Why just more nuclear in China? CO2 capture unfortunately is a lost cause. Much more energy is consumed in it’s capture for a start, usually fossil fuelled energy.

    Link to this
  8. 8. singing flea 5:30 pm 06/11/2013

    “Every adult knows what has to be done. More nuclear. More fracked gas. More hydroelectric. More windpower. And right now.”

    No, nuclear and fracking are a scourge on the environment. Hydroelectric and wind power only work in ideal places. The solution is conservation and improved efficiency of energy wasting appliances and machines. BTW, adults are the problem not the solution.

    Link to this
  9. 9. b@man 5:33 pm 06/11/2013

    There is obviously no global warming, but a ton of global warming BS.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Sisko 5:36 pm 06/11/2013

    David Biello- A good and balanced article. Keep it up- 1 in a row!

    It seems to have been a good decision fro the USA to have not joined in the EU’s silly plans isn’t it?

    Link to this
  11. 11. Owl905 5:39 pm 06/11/2013

    “It seems to have been a good decision fro the USA to have not joined in the EU’s silly plans isn’t it?” No.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Craig Baker 5:52 pm 06/11/2013

    Until we come to terms with the main driver behind the issue then there will be no solution.

    If there was 100 million people in total on the planet then it would not matter what CFC or HFC was in the refrigerator.

    7 Billion on the planet today and in 30 years times that number could double. What sort of world do you wish to leave your children and grand children?

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 6:11 pm 06/11/2013

    David,

    Hydrofluorocarbons aren’t responsbile for the ozone hole. It was CFCs that caused a lot of the damage because Cl atoms break apart O3 and HFCs were invented as a substitute to decrease ozone depletion. Also, CO2 “levels” did not hit 31.6 million metric tons last year. Global carbon emissions were around 32 BILLION metric tons, pushing atmospheric concentrations to 400ppm. In addition, The “Great Recession” ended in 2010 and U.S. GDP levels are higher than they were in 2008, so macroeconomic factors aren’t at play in the USA’s emissions reductions like you envision. U.S. manufacturing output has also increased over the past 3 – 4 years, so the reductions are also not due to factory jobs moving overseas.

    Otherwise, a good article.

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 6:15 pm 06/11/2013

    Sisko,

    It’s good to see that you’ve begun to embrace the reality of climate change! I’ll look forward to more rational discussions with you now that you support statements like

    “…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.”

    and

    “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.”

    Welcome to the reality-based community!

    Link to this
  15. 15. Shmick 6:27 pm 06/11/2013

    Why does someone ALWAYS have to jump in on these articles with the old “population is the only solution” post?

    Mate, I agree that if we didn’t have 7 Billion people on Earth then we wouldn’t have the same scale of problem. But guess what? You can’t go out and kill them, not without being a monster, so we have to do what we can regardless.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage responsible family planning, but by throwing up this 100 Million again and again you are talking about eliminating 98% of the world’s population. Fact is in that scenario almost none of us will have children or grandchildren to consider!

    PS. It is hugely unlikely that the 7 Billion will double in another 30 years anyway. Have a look at the statistics, the rate of increase is slowing.

    Link to this
  16. 16. moss boss 7:14 pm 06/11/2013

    @ciendolor:

    That was a joke, correct?

    @b@man:

    A new troll to the site? Let me introduce you to Sisko, Carlyle, outsidethebox, scienceisnotanagenda, and Shoshin.

    You should feel comfort in agreeing with their posts, and discomfort regarding the reality of climate change, that which most of those cited above attempt to refute using either outdated or misinterpreted information, or info that is licked up by the gullible, non-knowing, or those with an axe to grind.

    To use the words of the highest seated ignoramus on FOX News, “Which be you?”

    Link to this
  17. 17. Owl905 7:33 pm 06/11/2013

    “7 Billion on the planet today and in 30 years times that number could double.” Mainstream estimates peg the mid-line at 8.8billion in 2040 (UN – 2010 collected analysis). Using the rule of 72 and the 1.1% current brith-rate, it’s about 65 years for doubling the current population.
    Better start dealing with the problems instead of throwing out resigned excuses.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Soccerdad 9:56 am 06/12/2013

    Scam? Yes. But government incompetence is the underlying cause. When governments attempt to legislate without regard to the principles of economics, unintended consequences result.

    For more proof, watch closely while the Affordable Care Act is implemented.

    Link to this
  19. 19. David_Lewis 4:16 pm 06/12/2013

    An agreement by the US and China to limit the emission of HFCs in future isn’t just applicable to the scam China was running with HFC-23. There are lots of HFCs.

    HFC-23, the one China was cashing in on, was a byproduct of HCFC production. They were allowed to produce HCFC because although HCFC destroys ozone, it has a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than the CFCs (without the H)that the Montreal Protocol was more immediately concerned with. China produced more HFC-23 as a byproduct than it would otherwise have done because it could cash in on it.

    Other HFCs, such as HFC-134a, are actually used to replace the older CFC refrigerants. They aren’t byproducts – they are what civilization is using for home refrigeration now. Although they don’t destroy ozone they are powerful greenhouse gases. As the use of refrigeration expands it is important to control emissions to the atmosphere of all powerful greenhouse gases.

    The US is not limiting the emission of HFC-134a to the atmosphere by requiring recycling of the gas when refrigerators are discarded, just as China is not limiting emission of HFC-134a. Etc.

    If the agreement between the US and China on HFCs is an agreement to limit emissions of all HFCs it is a major step forward.

    Your article entirely misses what is happening in favor of kicking China around over a past transgression.

    Why not kick the US around for some of its glaring past transgressions? Instead of leading the world into a binding international agreement as it did with the Montreal Protocol, the US is leading the world as the biggest funder and distributor of climate denial, and for being the leader of all those nations who want to do nothing about climate change.

    This is a lot worse than anything China has done or is doing.

    Link to this
  20. 20. twayburn 1:20 am 06/13/2013

    I notice that many of those who have commented on this don’t know much about energy, limits to growth, ecological footprints, overshoot, de-growth, over-population, the coming collapse of capitalism, and any number of other matters that should be assimilated before commenting on public policy. Come to think of it, the same criticism could be applied to nearly everyone in federal, state, and local government – as well as nearly every college lecturer and K-12 teacher. We are indeed FUBAR.

    Link to this
  21. 21. twayburn 1:22 am 06/13/2013

    I suppose that be the time climate change is absolutely undeniable it will be too late to indict the denialists for crimes against humanity.

    Link to this
  22. 22. Carlyle 4:28 am 06/13/2013

    The crimes against humanity in this sphere are being committed by those who are causing billions to be spent on fake solutions for a fake problem.

    Link to this
  23. 23. willfree 2:01 pm 06/13/2013

    “So CFC’s were replaced with HFC’s. Now HFC’s need to be replaced with what?”

    KFCs

    Link to this
  24. 24. Carlyle 4:59 pm 06/13/2013

    :)

    Link to this
  25. 25. outsidethebox 6:36 pm 06/13/2013

    Replying to singing flea and others who think conservation/increased efficiency are the best answers, I would suggest you turn your attention to this awful fact. The number of “middle class” humans out of the 7 billion here on earth is around 2 billion. In less than 20 years it has been estimated to be around 5 billion.

    http://www.dnaindia.com/india/1829866/report-global-middle-class-population-to-touch-5-billion-by-2030

    Well certainly we’ll have to be as efficient and conservation minded as possible but that’s simply not going to be enough. Increased energy is going to be required, soon and in large quantities.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Postman1 9:16 am 06/14/2013

    moss boss, nice to hear you watch Fox and pay attention to what is said. At least you have one unbiased source.

    Link to this
  27. 27. priddseren 3:59 am 06/15/2013

    Thanks for proving the case that Carbon credits, creating fantasy pollution rights and selling them off, carbon tax or any other ridiculous plan of this nature is nothing more than scam created by politicians, bureaucrats and government dependent companies to steal as much money as possible or obtain power. I have numerous posts on SA about this completely obvious prediction of what would happen when ridiculous ideas like this are made into law.

    Not that it was hard to predict. Even if the flawed computer models are somehow right, the carbon taxing scams were easy to identify because the politicians wanted them, they involved excuses for politicians to take money, excuses for them to take power, left a nice system to game and no where in any of this transfer of money or power was some sort of technology, fuel replacement or other solution that actually addressed any kind of warming problems.

    Of course the other reason to know carbon taxing is a scam is the Political Class of the world. The one group of people on the planet who are totally corrupt, dishonest, incompetent and greedy beyond words to explain. Any idea they put into law has only the goal of their obtaining money and power. This fact alone should have been enough to have carbon tax laws ended before they started.

    Of course, later in the article, somehow the carbon trading scam which paid the chinese scam miraculous reduced pollution, even though china created more to get their money.

    Well warmists, maybe one of you can one day explain exactly how it is that politicians stealing your money and granting themselves power over you, is somehow counter-acting global warming. Last time I checked, we are all still using cars and oil.

    Link to this
  28. 28. MOBI57 6:38 am 06/17/2013

    Hi willfree: the problem wth HFC’s is there GWP, anywhere from 1500-3000 times that of CO2. Several refrigeration manufacturers are opting for R744, (CO2)or a range of hydrocarbon refrigerants. I bought a brand new Fisher Paykel fridge/freezer two weeks ago and to my pleasant supprise I found that it was charged with R600 (isobutane), which has 0 ODP and 0 GWP, instead of R134a (HFC)
    Other hyrocarbon refrigerants are R170 (ethane) and R290 (propane).
    This is by no means new, many years ago I had a Ford Falcon (EA) that had R12 (CFC) in the a/c system. It was getting quite hard to get R12 in Australia at that time. I never used to run my vehicle a/c system during the winter, hence R12, being a very searching gas used to leak out and come summer it would need recharging. After a little research I found that I could use LPG as a drop in refrigerant, I did this and it lasted the next seven years that I had the car, without recharging, the reason being LPG is not a searching gas, i.e. its molecular structure is such that it cannot leak out of very fine clearances, as does a searching gas.
    Another good point was that the system required 1kg of R12, but only required 333g of LPG.
    Someone pointed out to me one day that LPG was explosive (as if I didn’t know!!!! – I teach marine engineering, which includes the safety of handling flammable and explosive fuels and cargoes)……….so I pointed out that I had 67 litres of petrol in my fuel tank………and that is like……..not explosive!!!!
    By the way you did leave out HCFC’s (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), these came between CFC’s and HFC’s, they started phasing these refrigeration systems out in 2010, the most common of that class of refrigerants is probably R22.

    Link to this
  29. 29. Green Cooling 1:39 am 07/7/2013

    While it’s great to see the climate impact of the F-Gases getting some of the attention they have long deserved, it is important to get the details right about where we are now and why, and what needs to be done from here to maximise the climate benefits from dealing with the CFC/HCFC/HFC problem.

    HCFCs, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (largely R22) were ramped up as an interim substitute for CFCs as they are less potent ozone depleters, and are scheduled for an accelerated phaseout due to recognition in 2007 by the Montreal Protocol of the climate benefits of acting faster than originally planned. HFC23 is produced as a byproduct of R22 manufacture, and as a result of the collapse of the fraudulent carbon credit scheme alluded to, this gas represents a significant climate time bomb, as revealed 2 weeks ago by the Environmental Investigation Agency.

    Other HFCs were selected by the Montreal Protocol as CFC replacements at the behest of largely US based fluorochemical companies, in many cases completely unnecessarily, as natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, ammonia and carbon dioxide could have done the job 20 years ago. The range of applications to which these solutions are now suited has vastly expanded.

    We now need to raise the level of ambition to work for an HFC phaseout using genuinely climate friendly solutions, and avoiding further mistakes by adopting the new generation of fluorochemicals being pushed by the usual suspects.

    Link to this

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