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A Super Solution for Super Greenhouse Gases

David Doniger

Posted July 25, 2009 in Solving Global Warming

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All eyes are focusing on the climate change negotiations coming to a head in Copenhagen in December, as more than 190 nations try to hammer out an effective regime to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping pollutants.  Meanwhile, with much less fanfare, the same countries met earlier this month in Geneva on an ingenious proposal to curb one group of those gases, known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), under the Montreal Protocol, another treaty that has been successfully tackling global pollutants for two decades.

HFCs are a branch of a family of chemicals called fluorocarbons, whose destructive properties bring the worlds of ozone layer and climate protection together.  Fluorocarbons serve as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners, as blowing agents to make plastic foams, and in a wide variety of other uses.  Two branches of the fluorocarbon family - chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) - have two strikes against them:  they are both ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases.  The third branch - hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) - is heat-trapping but not ozone-depleting. 

This is a tale of two treaties.  At the same time that developed and developing nations are struggling in climate negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol, they continue working together cooperatively and productively under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty adopted more than 20 years ago to repair the ozone layer.  The question on the table at this month's meeting in Geneva was how the Montreal Protocol can help in the fight against global warming. 

The Montreal treaty was created more than two decades ago to phase out CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.  Under Montreal, developed and developing countries have cooperated in a way that still eludes them in climate negotiations.  Curbs on chemical production apply in both developed and developing countries, although developing countries are given longer to act and receive technology transfer assistance from developed countries through a jointly-managed Multilateral Fund. 

Cooperation under the Montreal treaty has been extremely successful.  CFCs have been almost entirely eliminated in nearly every country, both developed and developing.  HCFCs, which have served as a transitional substitute, are being phased-out now, again in both developed and developing countries.  Indeed, by the treaty's 20th anniversary in 1997, more than 95 percent of all ozone-depleting chemicals worldwide had been eliminated.  While the damage will linger for decades, the ozone layer is on the mend.  

The Montreal Protocol has also delivered huge side-benefits for the climate.  The reason is that CFCs and other fluorocarbons are "super greenhouse gases," trapping thousands of times more heat than CO2 on a pound for pound basis.  According to a seminal 2007 scientific paper, the Montreal Protocol will deliver CFC reductions in 2010 equal to eliminating 11 billion metric tons of CO2.  This is five to six times the reduction in CO2 and other heat-trapping gases required by the Kyoto Protocol in 2010.  It is also equivalent to delaying the expected growth in global CO2 emissions by 7-12 years

In 2007, the Montreal Protocol parties agreed to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs.  That move also has the potential to bring large climate benefits.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, on a cumulative basis between now and 2030, the HCFC phase-out could achieve reductions equaling between 2.7 and 16 billion metric tons of CO2, depending on what the HCFCs are replaced with.   

That brings us to HFCs.  HFCs are growing rapidly in market segments they already occupy.  And the path of least resistance will be to accelerate that growth by replacing HCFCs with HFCs.  This would help the ozone layer, but it would not help the climate.  Though not ozone-depleting, the HFCs in common use today have the same (or even a bit more) heat-trapping power as HCFCs.  For example, HFC-134a, widely used in car air conditioners and other cooling applications, has 1430 times the heat-trapping power of CO2. 

In a new scientific paper, the same team of scientists that documented the climate benefits of phasing out CFCs has assessed the potential impact of HFCs.  While currently making up only about two percent of total greenhouse gas emissions (measured in terms of CO2), HFC production and emissions are growing very rapidly, especially in fast-developing countries such as China and India, both for the export market and domestic consumption.  If nothing is done, the science team forecasts that HFC production and emissions could rise eight-fold by 2050, amounting to 9-19 percent of global heat-trapping emissions in the business-as-usual case.  They project that HFC growth could wipe out the climate benefits of having eliminated CFCs and HCFCs. 

On the other hand, if a global regime can be worked out to freeze and then phase down HFC production, the scientists conclude we can achieve a big reduction in overall global warming pollution, equivalent to 4-10 years of CO2 emissions at the rate expected for 2050 under business-as-usual.

So, should this be done under the climate treaty, or under Montreal?  NRDC and several other environmental organizations have been urging countries to take the Montreal route.  See here, here, and here.) 

In the climate talks, I've argued, CO2 sucks all the oxygen out of the room.  In contrast, the Montreal Protocol has two decades of expertise focusing on the specific applications, technologies, and industries that make and use HFCs. Montreal also has a 20-year history of global cooperation, and institutions and traditions to facilitate action by both developed and developing countries.  The Montreal Protocol has the potential to act faster, to simplify the agenda of the climate talks, and to create an example of goodwill and cooperation that might help make progress in Copenhagen.  In short, through Montreal we have a chance to nip this problem in the bud.

When the Montreal treaty parties gathered in Geneva this month, they took up a proposal to phase down HFCs offered by Micronesia, Mauritius, and eight other island nations living in peril as temperatures increase, sea levels rise, and typhoons become stronger.  There was broad agreement on the need to avoid the dramatic increase in HFC production and emissions forecast by the scientific team.  And there was also general agreement - mixed with a measure of justifiable pride - that the Montreal Protocol had the expertise and the capacity to effectively curb this third branch of the fluorocarbon family.  

How did countries react to the Micronesia/Mauritius proposal?  The United States, while not endorsing M&M's specific phase-down schedule, spoke warmly about using Montreal to curb HFCs and suggested there may soon be a specific American proposal.  The European Union favored using Montreal to curb HFC production, but wants a formal blessing of this arrangement by the climate treaty parties in Copenhagen.  Only India argued aggressively that HFCs must be addressed only in the climate talks.  China took a more nuanced position, saying that the climate treaty was the "more appropriate" forum, but not closing the Montreal door.  Similar nuanced statements came from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, and other developing countries.

The meeting ended with HFCs firmly on the agenda, but next steps unclear.  As the State Department's senior delegate put it:  "This has been a very positive meeting because it has definitely put the issue squarely in peoples' sights."  The parties meet again in November in Egypt, where they will take the discussion to the next level. The most important thing the U.S. can do is come forward with a specific proposal for action under Montreal, well before the November meeting.  

This should be a no-brainer.  Curbing HFCs under Montreal enjoys support from American industry (including Dupont and Honeywell) as well as key environmental groups and members of Congress such as Reps. Waxman and Markey and Sens. Kerry and Boxer.  With industry and environmental support, the House-passed energy and climate legislation, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454), includes a specific phase-down schedule for HFCs, reaching 85 percent reduction by the early 2030s, if not sooner (Section 332).  

We have consensus at home.  Now let's build it abroad.  There's a super opportunity here.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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