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UNITED NATIONS — Hydrofluorocarbons. It’s a mouthful of a name for a chemical that keeps the turkey frozen in our refrigerators and also heats up the planet.
Now, a landmark international agreement to eliminate HFCs, as the chemicals are better known, is poised to come into effect. On Friday, Sweden became the 20th country to ratify the treaty, joining a diverse group that includes North Korea and Norway. That meets the threshold for the agreement to enter into force at the earliest possible date, according to the treaty: January 1, 2019.
It requires every country in the world to phase out the use of HFCs, compounds that are regarded as a sort of greenhouse gas on steroids, able to trap much more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
The agreement was reached, after seven painstaking years of negotiations, in October 2016 in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, it required 20 countries to ratify it in order to go into effect — just in time for a global meeting on a broader treaty designed to protect the ozone layer, which starts next week in Montreal.
More important, its advocates say, the ratification sends a message to companies that make the compounds and to companies that use coolants in their products that they will have to come up with alternatives.
“That’s a powerful signal to the market that they better continue to adjust their investment decisions and their production to meet the standards under this amendment,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an advocacy group in Washington.
The United States has not yet ratified the measure, nor has the Trump administration said whether it plans to. The United States is one of the world’s biggest makers of HFCs, and if it fails to ratify the agreement, it could potentially hinder the ability of American companies to sell coolants to other countries that have ratified the agreement.
“Now the question is, will the U.S. ratify the amendment so American chemical companies can gain full access to new global markets for replacement chemicals,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser.
China, a leading manufacturer of household appliances that contain HFCs, hasn’t yet ratified it either, but is expected to, Mr. Zaelke said.
According to the treaty, rich countries are to start phasing out HFCs by 2019, while lower-income countries have more time.
Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Program, said in a September 2017 speech that a drawdown of HFCs, according to the Kigali Amendment, “could avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century — making it one of the single largest opportunities to reduce emissions.”
Environment ministers from a group of countries championing the ban on HFCs applauded those that ratified the treaty to cross the 20-country threshold. They include Britain, Canada, and Pacific island nations most vulnerable to sea rise, like Palau and the Marshall Islands. “Big signal of our commitment to phase down #HFCs and fight #climate change,” tweeted David Paul, environment minister for the Marshall Islands.
What impact will that have on ordinary consumers? No one is required to buy a new refrigerator or air conditioner. New appliances coming into the market, though, are likely to contain alternatives that pollute less.