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As if Washington and the rest of the world weren’t having enough trouble dealing with climate change. A new report says global warming won’t be solved unless policymakers focus major attention on the super-potent greenhouse gases used to cool both people and food.

Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are on track to become a significant contributor to climate change, due to staggering growth in air conditioning, refrigeration and insulation in China, India and other developing countries, says the research just published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The research puts stark numbers for the first time on a long-brewing problem, and puts additional pressure on the Obama administration to take a stand on how to address HFCs in advance of a July 14 United Nations meeting on the subject in Geneva.

“You could win the battle with CO2 — which we must win — but still lose the climate war if we don’t take out HFCs,” says Durwood Zaelke, director of the nonprofit Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C., who has been pushing for greater attention to climate issues beyond carbon dioxide.

HFC emissions are on a path to rise to levels three or four times greater than previously thought, wrote the team of scientists from the Netherlands government, two U.S. agencies — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency — and DuPont, a major HFC manufacturer. They project that global HFC emissions will rise to the equivalent of 8.8 billion gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

In other words, HFCs would then contribute as much greenhouse gas as 2 billion passenger cars — three times the number of all cars now operating in the world, says Guus Velders, of the Netherlands agency, the paper’s lead author.

The climate bill being considered in Congress would phase down HFCs in the United States. But the problem is overseas. An international agreement would be needed to push nations to the use existing and new alternatives to HFCs — all of which have drawbacks of their own (and one of which is being developed by DuPont).

The question now being debated within the Obama administration is whether to wait for excruciating international climate negotiations to address HFCs, or to attempt to regulate them using a the 22-year-old agreement — the Montreal Protocol — that largely succeeded in protecting the earth’s ozone layer. That protocol applied to now-obsolete chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, that were replaced by HFCs. But some are now suggesting that the path of least resistance might be to alter the protocol to apply to HFCs. A May 4 State Department letter

to the U.N.’s Ozone Secretariat said officials were analyzing the problem.

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