Unexplained spike in deadly greenhouse gas far worse than CO2 contradicts claims of slashed emissions

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC-23), which is nearly 15,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, hit record levels in 2018. This rise contradicts earlier reports by countries who had stated that they have slashed the release of the gas.


                            Unexplained spike in deadly greenhouse gas far worse than CO2 contradicts claims of slashed emissions
(Getty Images)

A greenhouse gas, nearly 15,000 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, has quietly hit record highs in 2018, claims a new study. This rise in the atmospheric levels of the potent gas -- Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC-23) contradicts earlier claims of slashed emissions.

The gas can damage the ozone layer and contribute to climate change. "Continued emissions of HFC-23 will contribute to global heating and the knock-on effects of this." the lead author Dr. Kieran Stanley, visiting research fellow at the University of Bristol and a postdoctoral researcher at the Goethe University Frankfurt," tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). 

These effects include melting ice-caps which leads to rising sea levels and flooding. This, in turn, could make people more susceptible to diseases while also threatening human life. Increased flooding could damage property, crops, and livestock.

Further, inhaling large amounts of this gas could lead to lightheadedness, nerve damage leading to tingling and numbness in arms and the legs, and issues with hearing, suggests a study.

"This potent greenhouse gas has been growing rapidly in the atmosphere for decades now, and these reports [of reduced emissions] suggested that the rise should have almost completely stopped in the space of two or three years. This would have been a big win for the climate," says co-author Dr. Matt Rigby, from the University of Bristol.

If countries had curtailed their emissions as claimed, we may have avoided emissions that equal Spain's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, says the team.

But things played out differently than expected. When the team monitored the atmosphere, checking for changes in the circulating levels of HFC-23, they were shocked. Instead of seeing a drop in the levels of this greenhouse gas, their analysis showed an increase, puzzling them. 

The study suggests that gas could still be illegally produced at secret locations and countries may be manipulating their data.  "Our study finds that it is very likely that China has not been as successful in reducing HFC-23 emissions as reported. However, without additional measurements, we cannot be sure whether India has been able to implement reductions," says Dr Stanley.

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What is HFC-23?

HFC-23, is released when industries produce another chemical called HCFC 22 -- used in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries in developing countries such as China and India. "Globally, China and India are the two largest producers of HCFC-22. In 2017, China and India produced 75% of the total HCFC-22," says Dr. Stanley.

Developed countries may also have a role to play in its rise. In 2011, US emissions of HFC-23 were 6.9 million tonnes of CO2e or equivalent carbon dioxide, coming from two facilities owned by Honeywell in Louisiana and Dupont in Kentucky. Further, both developing and developed nations are using the chemical as a feedstock in the production of other gases or substances, explains Dr. Stanley.

There is a fix, though. We have the technology to destroy the gas. These emissions approximately equate to the total greenhouse gas emissions from Spain in 2017 (302 Tg CO2-equivalent, including land use, land-use change and forestry) and could have been avoided if abatement technology had been used at the source.

Despite this, industries have been releasing the gas freely into the atmosphere, reads a 2015 report by Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). This is because companies do not benefit economically from destroying the gas.

Plan of action

Several countries came together to form the The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances such as HFC-23. And as per the agreement, member countries are required to destroy HFC-23 as far as possible.

Although China and India are not yet bound by the Amendment, their reported reductions in emissions should have put them on course to be consistent with Kigali, says the team of researchers. However, they add, there is still work to do.

"We now hope to work with other international groups to better quantify India and China's individual emissions," says Dr Rigby. The team recommends independent monitoring and reporting of emissions to achieve a reduction in emissions, which can be done on a national or international level.

Dr. Stanley adds," In future studies, we will look into locating the sources of HFC-23 emissions or HCFC-22 production".

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

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