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In the ongoing battle against climate change the world will be judged on the success of political maneuvering to prevent the impending global temperature rise. And while we’ve all been distracted by the unfolding election drama, a relatively quiet meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, may have been the most important development yet in our fight to rein in the planet’s warming temperatures.

Without these efforts by countries around the world, the rise in temperature is expected to reach 4°C above pre-industrial levels, which will have unthinkable consequences to the survival of millions of species, including humans. Earlier this year, the Paris Agreement aimed to keep the global temperature increase well below 2°C, which would significantly reduce these devastating impacts. However, this was not the first agreement to hold countries to a global environmental standard.

In 1989, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer required countries to phase out the use of several groups of halogenated hydrocarbons that deplete stratospheric ozone, specifically CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons. Since that time, research has shown that there are signs of ozone recovery and improvements to human health as a direct result of this Protocol.

Today we know that CFCs are only a small part of the picture. HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, are closely related to CFCs, and while they don’t harm the ozone layer, they are a significant contributor to climate change. On a molecule-for-molecule basis, they are up to 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

While the Montreal Protocol regulated CFCs, it didn’t do anything about HFCs. In effect, the Montreal Protocol only fixed half the problem.

Resolution in Kigali

In October of 2016, negotiators from 170 countries representing governments and the chemical industry met in Kigali, Rwanda, to create an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to resolve this glaring issue. The challenge lies in the fact that HFCs are the key chemical used in air-conditioners and refrigerators, as well as insulating foams, fire suppressants and inhalers. As the population grows, countries like India and China are seeing more and more families able to afford their own air-conditioning unit, a prospect which can have far-reaching consequences: the Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that as many as 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be in use by 2050.

The negotiations in Kigali took four days and three nights with very little sleep to arrive at a complicated deal that reduces the use of HFCs starting in 2019 and phases them out gradually. More than 100 developing countries have more time to start, beginning in 2024, and a small group (including India, Pakistani and Gulf states), will begin in 2028.

Even this delayed response will have immense positive effects. US Secretary of State John Kerry aimed to agree to a deal before the US election and sought major investment from all countries in new technologies.

“Agreeing a deal to phase down the use of HFCs is the single most important step we can take to limit the warming of the planet. We all know that the window of time that we have to prevent the worst climate impacts from happening is in fact narrowing, and it is closing fast,” Kerry said.

Benefits of the Deal

Half a degree centigrade is the largest sweeping impact of any action yet attempted. As David Doniger, climate and clean air program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council has said, this agreement is “equal to stopping the entire world’s fossil-fuel CO2 emissions for more than two years.”

The deal also illustrates one of the first major results of the Paris Agreement, which helped open the door for this negotiation and created a sense of urgency around the issue. At the same time, critics agree that the deadline may be too little, too late. For industrialized nations, phasing out HFCs is a relatively simple process of switching to fluorinated gases or ammonia, which are not only environmentally friendly, they are more energy-efficient and thus save money. Some question why this switch hasn’t happened sooner, since the effects of HFCs have been known for so long.

For developing countries without the economic resources for research and development, old technologies created in the West were the only option for acquiring refrigeration. Now the Kigali deal includes specific agreements by rich countries to finance the transition for poor countries—a landmark advancement in the plan to prevent climate change.

Durwood Zaelke, the president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, described the deal as “much, much, much stronger than Paris. This is a mandatory treaty. Governments are obligated to comply.”

Climate change is happening right now. NASA research confirms The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prediction that 20-30 % of plant and animal species will be at the risk of extinction if temperatures climb more than 1.5° to 2.5°C. We are left to conclude that this may be inevitable. Our hope in agreements like the Kigali deal rest in the fact that this is our last, best chance to make a major change preventing the 4°C rise, an event that Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations describes as a “world of deadly droughts, flooded coastal cities, and the loss of priceless biodiversity.”