A Who's Who of Funders Are Going After the "Low-Hanging Fruit" of Climate Change

We pulled it off in the '80s when CFCs were damaging the ozone layer. Can we now scrub hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from cooling systems to combat climate change? Funders are backing the effort, along with efficiency improvements.

If a coalition of nations can fast track a global upgrade of cooling and refrigeration, the phasing out of HFCs, combined with improved energy efficiency, could prevent up to 1 degree Celsius of global warming by the end of the century. 

As one U.K. professor says in a recent Guardian article, “Demand for cold is already huge, it’s growing fast, and we’re meeting it in basically the same way we’ve been doing for a century. Cold is the Cinderella of the energy debate.”

But as with all global efforts to curb climate change, the sticking point is how wealthier nations will help those that need assistance pay for improvements, while helping them maintain and improve quality of life. 

Philanthropy can’t cover the tab, but funders have been pitching in and trying to play a catalytic role in supporting emissions reductions in developing nations. A whole gang of them have identified the HFC cooling issue as a prime opening, and 19 private funders are putting up tens of millions of dollars toward the effort. Funds will help poorer nations switch to appliances that don’t use HFCs and improve energy efficiency, delivering a dual benefit that a coalition of countries is banking on as they call for an ambitious phase-out plan in upcoming negotiation in Rwanda.

HFCs and cooling have been something of a background issue in the climate debate, with the burning of fossil fuels to get around and light up cities playing the lead villain. But it’s having a moment right now as an opportunity for reform presents itself, and proponents are sounding the alarm.

Related: India’s Clean Energy Goals Are Massive, and Hewlett is Boosting Support

The problem with HFCs actually stems from a major environmental victory that dates back to the 1980s, when scientists identified the “hole in the ozone layer” and chlorofluorocarbon emissions from spray cans and cooling appliances as a cause. In 1987, nations gathered to approve the Montreal Protocol to phase out CFCs—replacing in large part them with HFCs. 

Ditching CFCs worked, but HFCs are now a problem, one of a handful of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) that don’t last long in the atmosphere, but have a large warming effect. Some HFCs are 4,000 times more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gases, and their use is on the rise. There’s also the chicken-and-egg problem referred to earlier—as climate change dials up temperatures, especially in the developing world, we’re going to need more cooling power.  

So it could be a crisis or an opportunity, and countries will meet in Rwanda in October to try and make it the latter by amending the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and switch to comparable alternatives. Some of those countries, and the 19 philanthropies, are taking the opportunity to layer on efficiency improvements to the phase out effort. Funders involved include big U.S. players like Bill Gates, ClimateWorks, Hewlett, and Packard, as well as emerging foundations like Pisces and Heising-Simons. But the list is a who’s who of climate funders that you can see in its entirety here. The total amount of the new fund is $80 million, available as early as 2017.

As we’ve been witnessing a lot lately, funders love backing energy efficiency, because if done right, it can make impacts that reverberate well beyond initial giving amounts. Efficiency costs money up front, but once in place, has ongoing positive environmental and economic impacts. There’s a similar spirit at play in a recent $30 million commitment in clean energy giving for India by MacArthur, Packard, Hewlett and Grantham. If they can nudge countries to transition in this historic moment, there could be an outsized payoff.