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A “climate bomb” puts Xi Jinping’s environmental promises to the test

When revelations about the US’s PRISM spying program broke days before presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama met in California for their “shirtsleeves summit,” there was little hope for real progress on cyber security negotiations. But the summit had other achievements: China and the US said they would work harder to reduce emissions of super-greenhouse gases known as HFCs. Now China has a chance to prove it.

Because of a recent ban on the trade of emissions credits by the European Emissions Trading Scheme, a slew of producers of refrigerants, many from China, are about to release a “climate bomb” of HFCs into the atmosphere with gases 15,000 times more damaging than carbon dioxide, according to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

HFCs (or hyrdofluorocarbons) are a byproduct in the manufacture of air conditioners and refrigerators. To encourage producers to incinerate the gases rather than release them, the United Nations issues climate credits. Unused credits can be traded and used by other companies—the idea being that recipients of the credits reduce emissions to profit from selling them. But the system didn’t work as intended, prompting Europe to cease trading.

As a result, 19 factories worldwide, 11 of which are in China, are set to release more than 2 billion tonnes of a type of super-greenhouse gas known as HFC-23 by 2020. An executive at China Fluoro Technology told the Financial Times: “Our company is still incinerating the HFC-23 now. If the money is used up, we can stop incineration. We can’t go on doing this, we can’t afford it and we have no duty to do it.”

But China could step up. Last month, Beijing committed to phase out HFC production, and Xi’s agreement with the US adds another layer of obligation. Breaking from his predecessors, Xi has also vowed to crack down on other forms of pollution. The climate bomb will put him to a public test.

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