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Countries Reach Deal To Limit Hydrofluorocarbon Emissions


World leaders are calling it nothing short of historic. In Kigali, Rwanda, today, delegations from nearly 200 countries agreed to a deal meant to fight global warming. The United Nations says the pollutants known as hydrofluoric carbons or HFCs are the world's fastest-growing greenhouse gases. And they're mainly found in appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners. The deal announced today promises to slash the use of those worldwide. For the White House, it's a milestone in what President Obama sees as his legacy in addressing climate change.

Joining us to talk about the significance of all of this is Andrew Light. He's a distinguished senior fellow with the World Resources Institute. That's a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. And he spent several years at the State Department and outside of government working on climate change issues. Andrew Light, thanks for being here.

ANDREW LIGHT: Thank you very much for having me.

SINGH: How big of a deal is this agreement that was announced out of Kigali today?

LIGHT: It's huge. So in addition to HFCs being the fastest-growing greenhouse gas, they're one of the most potent, thousands of times more dangerous from a climatic perspective than carbon dioxide. And so what we now have is an agreement to phase these out, both the production and the consumption. You'll basically eliminate 80 to 85 percent of HFCs, and you will get this gain of avoiding up to half a degree of warming by the end of the century. We've already warmed the planet 1 degree. We want to do no more than 2 degrees, even lower than that if possible, so this half a degree savings is really important.

SINGH: Can you explain how this current proposal got to Kigali?

LIGHT: Sure. So in 1987, countries created the Montreal Protocol. It's been described as one of the single most successful international agreements writ large - not just environmental but writ large because it's so effective at doing its job. We created it because of the hole in the ozone layer. And so the idea was to use it to get rid of ozone-depleting substances, the things that were knocking the hole in the ozone layer.

The treaty also says that when you substitute those ozone-depleting substances for other things, if you're worsening something else in the environment like you are with HFCs, which are the substitute for many of those substances, then we can also use the protocol to get rid of these other dangerous pollutants as well. And so that's what the parties did. They got together and said, let's use the same protocol. Let's just amend it and use all of the institutions of the Montreal Protocol that have worked so effectively for so long now to get this success.

SINGH: When you heard this announcement out of Kigali, what was your first thought?

LIGHT: I woke up this morning thrilled. It's been such a long time. And to sort of see after all that happened - again, you know, thousands of people around the world working so hard, the leadership that we've seen by the president, people in the White House, the State Department, the EPA to get there - up until the last minutes they were worried, you know, that something might go awry - to sort of see this happen, just - you know, it's great.

SINGH: Did you expect that this would happen given that this is - what? - legally binding?

LIGHT: It is legally binding, and the momentum was there. But anyone who has worked in international negotiations knows this is difficult. You had 197 parties at the table. They all have to agree. They all have to go home and say this is a victory. This is something that we should do for our country and for the planet and for our children. And so to see them come to that kind of agreement is really impressive. I hoped that the momentum would bring them there. But, you know, you just can't - you just can't settle. You can't just assume that these things are going to happen in negotiations like this. So to see it get through was great.

SINGH: Andrew Light with the World Resources Institute. Andrew, thanks so much for being here.

LIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.