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Why some chemical companies joined the fight against climate change

More than 150 nations signed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to reduce the production of HFCs. They had a few unlikely allies: chemical corporations that have resisted past climate change regulations.

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    A view of the corporate sign outside the Honeywell International Automation and Control Solutions manufacturing plant in Golden Valley, Minnesota, on January 28, 2010. Honeywell is one of the corporations pushing alternatives to HFCs.
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On Saturday, in Kagali, Rwanda, 197 nations came together to reduce the amount of hydroflourocarbon (HFC) emissions released into the atmosphere every year – and they did it with the help of what some might consider an unexpected ally: chemical companies.

HFCs are entirely manmade, and have a large capacity for heat retention, even compared to other greenhouse gases. HFCs can trap about 1,000 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

After several days of negotiations, wealthier countries including the United States, Japan, Canada, and much of Western Europe, agreed to freeze the production of HFCs by 2019. After them, China and many developing countries will follow suit several years later.

The legally binding amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol agreement is an historic move in the fight against climate change. But some observers say that it couldn't have been done without the support of chemical companies, many of which have profited off of HFCs in the past. But as concerns about climate change become an increasingly important consideration for consumers in a warming planet, many of these chemical companies are hoping to capitalize on a greener future.

"This is an area where we are aligned with the environmental benefits," Kenneth Gayer, the vice president of fluorine products at Honeywell, one of the seemingly unlikely allies of the Montreal Protocol amendment, told The New York Times. "We anticipated the need for these regulations before people were even talking about global warming. Now, the world is going to use alternatives in a big way."

Chemical companies' research into environmentally-friendly alternatives is not entirely altruistic. Many corporations learned that it might be profitable to stay ahead of the environmental curve as early as 1987, when the Montreal Protocol was first established. Back then, the market for air conditioning, refrigerators, and aerosols was dominated by chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer. Many countries banned CFCs, and consumers began avoiding them, even as many chemical companies tried to resist the expense of developing alternatives.

"CFCs were used in industrial processes, electricity transmission and distribution, refrigeration and cooling, and as aerosol propellants," Daniel E. Horton, a climate scientist and the principle investigator of the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. He explains that HFCs were a relatively easy and cost-effective solution to replace the more common CFCs.

The Montreal Protocol's move away from CFCs appears to have been effective, with the hole in the ozone in the Antarctic that originally prompted CFC regulations showing significant signs of mending, as the Monitor reported in June. But while HFCs are better for the ozone layer than CFCs, HFCs are extremely detrimental as an atmospheric warming agent.

Because of this warming capacity, some chemical companies anticipated that HFCs would also eventually be regulated and banned on a global scale, just like the CFCs. Many of these corporations came to the conclusion that it would be more profitable in the long term to begin researching alternatives to HFCs, instead of waiting for the inevitable regulations to kick in. Honeywell was an early adopter of this philosophy, beginning research on alternatives to HFCs in the early 2000s.

While many companies now have a head start on producing HFC alternatives, Dr. Horton says there are a still number of challenges for the industry to consider. Some considerations are purely chemical problems of creating working alternatives to HFCs that fit the Montreal Protocol guidelines, but another difficulty is more societal in nature: the emerging middle class worldwide wants air conditioners and refrigerators.

"HFCs and the processes they are used in have become directly tied to our expected standard of living in the developed world. This is a standard of living that many more citizens in developing nations are justly striving to attain," says Horton. "HFC-based technology and infrastructure are extant and therefore relatively cheap when compared to newer, less-harmful solutions. The challenge then is for all nations to innovate and adopt less-harmful technologies despite their level of development."

The prospect of eliminating negative environmental impacts becomes even more difficult in other industries that remain slow to invest in alternatives for the sake of short-term profits. Fossil fuel companies, for instance, have been notably resistant in this regard, since demand for their more environmentally detrimental products remains high, particularly in developing nations.

"Climate change is an issue we have to address as a society," Neil Chapman, the president of Exxon Mobil Chemical, said at a National Association of Manufacturers luncheon last Wednesday. "But, at the same time, there’s 1 billion people without electricity in the world."

Just as demand helped drive chemical companies to switch to potentially more profitable, environmentally-friendly alternatives to HFCs, it is encouraging fossil fuel corporations to stick with familiar sources of energy. Susan Solomon, a professor of Atmospheric Chemistry & Climate Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells the Monitor in an email that getting fossil fuel companies to make the change will take more than the whims of market forces to bring about.

"I think it’s really up to us," says Dr. Solomon. "The Montreal Protocol shows that industry can and does engage – but only when society is engaged in serious policies. Policies work wonders when industry understands that they have to take them seriously."  

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