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Nonprofit Warns of Ticking Climate Bomb in the Form of HFC-23

Jun 24, 2013 01:55 PM EDT

China and India, as well as a handful of other countries, are expected to release en mass the chemical hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23), causing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the world to rise astronomically, according to a new report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a nonprofit group based in Washington D.C. and London.

A by-product in the production of the commonly used refrigerant HCFC-22, the chemical is estimated to be 14,800 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.

Meanwhile, the EIA reports that its investigators have discovered that many Chinese and Indian facilities are currently releasing amounts of the by-product despite the fact that, under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, incinerators for HFC-23 destruction were installed at 19 facilities in China, India, South Korea, Argentina and Mexico.

These CDM plants received billions of dollars in windfall profits from the sale of HFC-23 carbon credits, according to the EIA, much of which went to the Chinese government through a 65 percent tax on carbon credit revenues.

However, despite these allowances, the EIA states that the Chinese government has failed to use the profits to control harmful emissions from their 17 non-CDM production lines. Furthermore, rapidly rising concentrations of HFC-23 in the atmosphere indicate that HCFC-22 facilities in other countries are also venting the dangerous chemical, the investigators reported.

After manipulated HCFC-22 production versus HFC-23 waste ratios in the CDM projects were uncovered in 2010, HFC-23 destruction credits became prohibited from the world's largest carbon market, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, starting May 1, 2013.

Furthermore, carbon markets in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and California have also announced that they will not allow the use of HFC-23 offsets.

As a result, the EIA reports, the credits are "virtually unmarketable."

For this reason, the EIA said it learned that, without continued windfall profits from the CDM, the majority of China's plants covered by it are poised to begin venting their HFC-23. In addition, the organization warns, there is strong evidence that, unless they receive additional financing, India as well as Mexico, Argentina, South Korea and Russia will follow.

Should this happen, the organization explains, "it would represent a virtual 'climate bomb,' causing global [greenhouse gas] emissions to skyrocket."

In all, it estimates that emissions would stack up to more than 2 billion tons of equivalent carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, or more than 25 percent of China's annual carbon dioxide emissions, should this go through.

Because of this, the EIA calls upon the governments of each respective country to "act now to defuse this climate bomb," especially since cost-effective technology is readily available and already installed in the majority of the facilities where the chemical is manufactured.

Should non-CDM plants in countries specifically outlined by the UN need assistance with the cost of installing needed equipment, the EIA suggests they seek it from the Montreal Protocol, which led to the creation of a financial mechanism in 1989 to enable developing countries to comply to global standards in protecting the ozone layer.

Additionally, the EIA argues that the developed countries, and in particular the United States and European countries, "must lead by example" in ensuring that the best available technologies and storage facilities as well as maintenance practices are employed.

And nor is the private sector exempt, the EIA says, with the main chemical giants - Dupont, Honeywell and Arkema - sharing in the responsibility for ongoing HFC-23 emissions despite reportedly deploying incineration technology.

"While it is commendable that these companies have largely agreed to voluntarily destroy their HFC-23 by-product," the report says, "it is time that developed countries enforce these agreements and bring HFC-23 emissions to zero."

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