A Greenhouse Gas More Harmful than CO2 Increases


HFC-23 has a 12,000 times greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide. Predictions had estimated a 87% drop since 2015, but the reality is the opposite: a new record was recently reached.

Climate change can be curbed as long as greenhouse gases gradually disappear from the Earth’s atmosphere. To do this, emissions must be reduced. This is precisely the purpose of most of the major international environmental agreements. Normally, thanks to them, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases should have disappeared drastically from the atmosphere: trifluoromethane (or fluoroform), also called HFC-23.

However, not only did this gas not show the reduction announced and hoped for, but it shows conversely an increase in its concentration in the atmosphere. This finding is presented in a study published in January, 2020 in Nature Communications. This increase in emissions comes more precisely from China and India, even though the two countries had claimed a drastic reduction.

Trifluoromethane comes from the production of refrigerant for refrigerators and air conditioners.

HFC-23 was officially recognized as a negative gas

Trifluoromethane (HFC-23) plays a key role in climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer. This gas comes from the production of refrigerants for air conditioners and refrigerators. Paradoxically, its use was aimed at countering other aerosols considered dangerous for the environment and the ozone layer such as chlorofluorocarbons – or CFCs. The Montreal Protocol in 1985 set the stage for the elimination of CFCs. The infamous HFC-23 replaced it.

But that other gas turned out to be just as harmful in the end. Its impact on climate change is 12,000 times greater per tonne than that of carbon dioxide. As a result, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol was voted in 2016 by the states parties to the treaty: the Kigali Agreement. The reduction in consumption and production of HFC-23 has been implemented, with a legally binding value. The agreement came into force on January 1, 2019, but many states had pledged to cut emissions long before that, so much being at stake.

In 2017, at the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), China and India announced that progressive bans paid off, China was talking about reducing emissions and India was talking about mandatory incineration and waste management regulations some gas. It was then estimated that HFC-23 levels had potentially dropped 87% since 2015.

but instead of a drop, it was found that the concentrations of this gas reached a new record. In the report published in Nature Communications, the researchers explain that this decline ultimately did not happen. Instead, atmospheric observations show that emissions increased and were higher in 2018 than at any other time in history according to the authors.

Undeclared substantial production in an unknown place

Indeed, a record was reached at 15,900 tonnes in the Earth’s atmosphere, instead of the 2,400 tonnes predicted from claims by China and India. To figure out the numerical difference between predictions and reality, the researchers explain that it is equivalent to all of Spain’s carbon emissions in one year.

It is clear that, in the immediate future, China and India therefore did not really succeed in stemming the emissions of trifluoromethane. This record could be explained, as an alternative or complementary cause, by an undeclared substantial production of HCFC-22 (another gas whose production causes fumes of HFC-23) in an unknown place, from which would result a quantity unaccounted for HFC-23 releasing into the atmosphere.

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