Climate Pragmatism in Rwanda

No-Regrets Pollution Reduction on Display in Kigali Deal


October 31, 2016 | Alex Trembath

Eariler this month, the 28th Meeting of the Parties, an international negotiation among 170 countries around the world, convened in Rwanda to make a deal on phasing out hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs. HFC describes a set of compounds that are commonly used in refrigerants and air conditioners and, thus, are rapidly proliferating around the world. A replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that the 1989 Montreal Protocol began to phase out, HFCs have an outsized impact on global warming--between 100 and 10,000 times worse per molecule than CO2, depending on the exact compound and time frame.

That so many countries are agreeing to phase out HFCs is good news. Brad Plumer at Vox was on the money when he called it “one of the single biggest steps ever to tackle climate change.”

It’s also another sign that the pragmatic, post-Kyoto approach to climate action is working.

In 2011, Breakthrough and our allies released a report titled “Climate Pragmatism.” The tagline read “The Hartwell Analysis in an American Context,” an ode to the previous year’s “Hartwell Paper,” which laid out a new paradigm for international climate policy.

The premise of climate pragmatism was straightforward: innovation, resilience, and no regrets. Innovation, because the climate problem needed to be re-defined as a largely technological challenge. Resilience, because it’s clear that even rapid emissions reductions would not make cities, farms, and other infrastructure completely safe from natural disasters, climate-related and otherwise. And no regrets, because while there are stubborn tradeoffs between providing cheap energy and mitigating carbon emissions, there are all sorts of pollution-reduction opportunities with much more attractive cost-benefit outcomes: black carbon, methane, and, yes, HFCs.

As the coauthors wrote in “Climate Pragmatism,”

Finally, a set of powerful climate forcings could be readily tackled by extending the Montreal Protocol, which worked to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are very strong greenhouse gases. Pound for pound, they cause hundreds or even thousands of times more warming than carbon dioxide in both the short and long terms (although the atmosphere contains much smaller quantities of these gases than CO2). Pragmatically extending effective pollution reduction regimes to tackle these potent warming agents could yield significant, low-cost climate benefits.

The deal in Rwanda does exactly that.

Since at least the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, if not since long before, it has been obvious that the global, top-down, targets-and-timetables approach to climate policy developed in the 1990s would fail. It did. Fortunately, by around this time last year, it became clear that an alternative had officially taken root. That alternative emphasized harmonizing the bottom-up capabilities of many countries and treated climate change as a challenge of technological innovation. I wrote about this pretty massive shift last December. Ted Nordhaus summed up the shift nicely:

For over a decade, we along with a pretty small number of other folks have been saying that progress on international climate mitigation efforts would require a shift from a top down approach focused on legally binding emissions targets and timetables to a bottom up bilateral and multilateral approach focused on real commitments to put clean energy infrastructure in the ground. Don't tell me what your emissions are going to be in 2050, tell me how much clean energy infrastructure you are actually prepared to build today. That shift was ratified in Paris and does in fact mark a historic departure from the framework convention established in 1992 and ratified in the Kyoto Accords in 1997.

Emblematic of the new climate pragmatism on display by the international community, the HFCs deal does not “solve” climate change in one global agreement. Neither did the Paris Agreement last winter and neither will anything else. But both Rwanda and Paris are encouraging steps forward, bending the emissions curve downward by taking targeted action against many different threats. Call it lots of shots on goal, call it one step at a time, call it whatever you want--this is what pragmatic climate progress looks like.


Main image via Tinou Bao from San Francisco, USA -, CC BY 2.0,