If climate change were an action thriller, CO2 would have a starring role as the fallen hero. A judicious dose of the heat-trapping gas keeps our planet cozy. Over the last century, CO2 has grown in power and slipped towards the dark side — flooding cities, shriveling farmland and conjuring up über-powerful storms.
In this story, CO2 has an irredeemable accomplice, HFC-134a, a less abundant — but far more powerful — greenhouse gas. Unlike CO2, HFC-134a was created in a lab. He has no role in preserving the long-term health of the climate.
The fight over climate change is focused almost exclusively on CO2. Last year, the nations of Earth vowed to slow his advance across our skies. Left out of that groundbreaking accord was any mention of HFC-134a.
This month, countries pledged to stop this villain, too, driving the molecule out from the nooks and crannies where he lurks. This new pact has the farsighted ambition and legal force to make a huge difference.
To appreciate why, we’ll need to understand what makes CO2 and HFC-134a tick. But first, let’s establish the setting of this story.
The sky may appear impossibly vast, but the troposphere—where we live and breathe — is just a few miles thick. If you are standing in the middle of Brooklyn, New York, then you are closer to outer space than you are to the Jersey Shore— a fact which may come as some relief.
The thin varnish of gasses coating our planet is populated almost entirely by molecules of N2 and O2, nitrogen and oxygen, respectively. O2 gives life to humans and other animals. N2 nourishes plants. Together, they lend the sky its blue color.
In the story of climate change, these molecules are blameless. N2 and O2 are each comprised of just two atoms. Because of their simple molecular structure, they are unable to absorb the infrared light that’s warming the planet.
CO2 — or carbon dioxide, as he’s known to his friends — is the primary culprit in global warming. Comprised of three atoms, he sports the heft and complexity needed to absorb planet-cooking infrared light. CO2 can be found escaping the back end of your car or the smokestack of your local power plant.
Once CO2 makes it into the atmosphere, he will stick around for centuries. So, while he doesn’t trap a lot of heat, he will outlive our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This is what makes him so dangerous.
HFC-134a is short for hydrofluorocarbon. Like CO2, he belongs to the band of baddies. Mercifully, HFC-134a does not linger in the atmosphere for long — just a few years. But at eight atoms, he is much larger than his compatriot, and he absorbs far more infrared light. In the short term, HFC-134a has 3,790 times the heating power of CO2.
HFC-134a can be found in air conditioners and refrigerators. He was recruited to these tasks because he inflicted less damage to the ozone layer than his predecessor, R-134a. The bitter irony is that he has proved to be an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
What this means
The new pact to rein in HFC-134a could really take off the heat. World leaders have vowed to limit warming to just 2º C, and we are already halfway there.
CO2 is by far the biggest threat to our health, safety and prosperity. His impact is permanent. His presence will be felt for generations to come.
To ward off catastrophic warming, we must also dispense with the powerful, if short-lived, gasses that will cook the planet in the near term. By thwarting HFC-134a, we can focus on the larger threat.
Jeremy Deaton and Mina Lee write and produce original artwork for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow them at @deaton_jeremy and @minalee89.