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New Environmental Mystery: HFC-23 Super Pollutant Emissions Continue Despite Montreal Protocol Controls

Washington DCA new paper in Nature Communications finds that, based on atmospheric data, emissions of one of the most potent greenhouse gases on the planet, HFC-23 are higher than at any point in history. Meanwhile, emissions reported of the same substance are at the lowest in the past 17 years. The study estimates that an additional ~309 Tg CO2-equivalent emissions (greater than 300 million tons) were added to the atmosphere between 2015 and 2017.

“Destroying HFC-23 byproduct emissions is one of the most cost-effective climate mitigation opportunities available to countries. It is a shame that HFC-23 emissions continue to grow despite the billions of dollars companies (and through taxes, their Governments) have already received to deal with this. Any venting of HFC-23 is a colossal scandal and morally unacceptable given the climate crisis today,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA Climate Campaign Lead.

HFC-23 is an unwanted by-product resulting from HCFC-22 production. While HCFCs are being phased out for emissive uses, their use as a feedstock has grown significantly in recent years.

EIA investigations in 2013 in India and China found that companies were already venting or poised to vent HFC-23, in the absence of windfall profits they were accustomed to receiving via carbon markets to destroy this gas. We have been ringing the alarm bells on this two-billion tonne climate bomb, calling on all countries to destroy HFC-23,” added Avipsa. “Last year, EIA investigations solved one of the biggest environmental mysteries of unreported production of another controlled fluorochemical, CFC-11. This paper demonstrates again that absent strong enforcement of controls on synthetic coolants, such rogue emissions are to be expected.”

As per the paper, the discrepancy between reported and atmospheric data indicates that developing countries have been unsuccessful in meeting their reported emissions reductions. Alternatively, or additionally, there may be substantial unreported production of HCFC-22 at unknown locations resulting in unaccounted-for HFC-23 by-product being vented to the atmosphere.

With the signing of the Kigali Amendment in 2016, countries agreed to ensure that beginning January 1, 2020, all companies that manufacture HCFC-22 capture and then incinerate HFC-23 to prevent its release into the atmosphere. “Countries must immediately ratify the Kigali Amendment and urgently take action to comply with the commitment to destroy all HFC-23 by-product” said Christina Starr, Climate Policy Analyst at EIA.

NOTES

  1. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is a Washington DC-based Non-Governmental Organization that investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes, including illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, hazardous waste and trade in climate- and ozone-altering chemicals.

  2. HFC-23, trifluoromethane, is an unwanted by-product of HCFC-22 (used in refrigeration and air-conditioning) and has a global warming potential 12,400 times that of CO2.

  3. For additional information on the background to the HFC-23 scandal read the EIA report The Two Billion Tonne Climate Bomb: The Two Billion Tonne Climate Bomb here.

  4. In October 2016, India announced its chemical industry, with immediate effect, must collect and destroy emissions of its most potent greenhouse gas, HFC-23 voluntarily. India estimated this action would prevent nearly half a billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions from entering the atmosphere during the next 15 years. Read EIA press release here: Read EIA press release here.

  5. In 2018, EIA exposed how factories in China were illegally producing and using another dangerous greenhouse gas, CFC-11

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