“Negotiators from more than 170 countries on Saturday reached a legally binding accord to counter climate change by cutting the worldwide use of a powerful planet-warming chemical used in air-conditioners and refrigerators,” describes the New York Times the successful negotiations on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
The Kigali Amendment is a big deal because it phases out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The wealthy countries begin to phase out these powerful greenhouse gases already in 2019, most developing countries follow in 2024, and some major HFC producers such as India in 2028. Estimates suggest that the Kigali Amendment alone might reduce global warming by almost 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
But the Kigali Amendment is also a small step. It does not get us any closer to solving the hideously complicated political problems related to reducing the use of fossil fuels. Because HFCs are only used in a specific, heavily concentrated sector and alternatives are readily available, the bitter conflicts related to carbon emissions do not surface.
In the Kigali Amendment, almost all countries in the world had very little to lose. Major industrialized countries benefit from a deal that phases out dirty chemicals and creates markets for cleaner substitutes – a pattern we have seen before in chemicals negotiations. Most developing countries do not produce these chemicals, so the number of countries that stand to lose from HFC phase-out is very, very small. In the negotiations, these countries – especially India – were given extra time to adjust, and a deal was closed.
The difference in the logic of HFC phase-out and carbon abatement can be seen by comparing the Kigali Amendment and the Paris Agreement. The Kigali Amendment says phase-out: the substances are to disappear from the face of the earth. The Paris Agreement says that countries can do whatever they want, but they need to submit documents for review.
This is not a bad thing. The Kigali Amendment is a good, aggressive solution to an easy but important problem. The Paris Agreement is a partial, complicated solution to a massive and massively important problem.
A few years back, I proposed that the future of climate policy is in big dreams and small wins. There is no silver bullet or master plan, given the complex global politics of climate change. But innovative, pragmatic negotiators can help governments solve a series of smaller problems that gradually reduce the rate of global warming. It probably will not be enough for 2 degrees Celsius, but every reduction of 0.01 degrees Celsius is worth celebrating.