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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in Tuesday's print edition of The Washington Post, gave an incorrect number for the amount of carbon dioxide that could be eliminated by phasing out HFCs used in everything from vending machines to air conditioners. The estimate is 88 billion tons. This version has been corrected.

New front opens in war against global warming

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Developing countries like Costa Rica were hoping to lead by example and make progress at the UN Climate Conference taking place in Cancun over the next two weeks.

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 7:28 AM

Many policymakers and business leaders have come to see the most basic method of slowing global warming - cutting carbon dioxide emissions through a binding treaty - as elusive for now. They are turning their attention instead toward a more achievable goal: curbing other greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

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As the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change kicked off Monday in Cancun, Mexico, with the aim of laying the groundwork for a future pact, many experts focused on more immediate cuts in industrial chemicals, soot and methane, all of which contribute to short-term warming.

Rafe Pomerance, a senior fellow at Clean Air-Cool Planet, said a campaign to reduce these non-carbon dioxide emissions "can provide momentum that the world needs on significant greenhouse gas cuts."

The United States, Canada and Mexico will launch as early as this week a North American initiative to curb hydrofluorocarbons, which are used as industrial refrigerants, along with methane and the black carbon that comes from some diesel engines and wood-fired stoves. And U.N. negotiators in Cancun will press for the adoption of language next week that would ease the way for phasing out HFCs under a separate climate treaty.

In another sign of movement in this direction, 400 major companies including Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and WalMart announced Monday that they would stop using HFCs in new equipment by 2015.

Daniel A. Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, said he and other senior U.S. officials think they can reduce these greenhouse gases - which do not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide - even as they continue to chip away at the larger problem of emissions from factories and vehicles.

"We think we have a huge potential to do something about this very quickly," Reifsnyder said in an interview. "If we act today, we could head off a problem that will be 20 percent of the greenhouse gas problem by 2050."

These emissions come from many sources and have different effects on climate, but eliminating them could delay warming by as many as 40 years, according to Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

"It's the biggest, fastest insurance policy we can buy while we figure out how to solve the carbon dioxide problem," Zaelke said in a phone interview from Cancun.

Methane, for example, the second most common greenhouse gas, has a much larger effect on climate per ton than carbon dioxide in the short term, but is not released in as large a quantity and dissipates more rapidly.

Phasing out the HFCs used in everything from vending machines to air conditioners could cut the equivalent of 88 billion tons of carbon dioxide and account for as much as 8 percent of greenhouse gas reductions needed by midcentury.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have been lobbying global corporations for years to cut their carbon output, in part by substituting natural refrigerants such as hydrocarbons and ammonia. Greenpeace solutions director Amy Larkin, whose group developed the first hydrocarbon refrigerator in 1992, hailed the Consumer Goods Forum's announcement to phase out artificial refrigerants as "an important first step, and will pave the way for major changes across the industry."


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