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Progress on HFCs, the Super Greenhouse Gases? - Good News and Bad News from Bangkok

David Doniger

Posted November 12, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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This week the parties to the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that saved the ozone layer, met in Bangkok to consider what they can contribute to preventing climate change.  The good news from Bangkok, reflected in a declaration of 91 developed and developing countries (reprinted below), is growing support for curbing the powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  The bad news is that three key developing countries – India, China, and Brazil – blocked concrete progress on HFC proposals again this year. 

The Montreal Protocol has already provided huge climate benefits by phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ozone-destroying chemicals that double as powerful greenhouse gases.  Getting rid of CFCs worldwide has delivered a climate protection bonus equivalent to 11 billion tons of CO2 reductions in 2010 alone.  This is more than five times the emission reductions provided in 2010 by the Kyoto Protocol, and it’s also equivalent to delaying the growth in global CO2 emissions by 7-12 years

But the job isn’t finished, because the Montreal Protocol’s phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs is driving increasing demand for HFCs.  The threat to the climate from HFCs is large and growing.  The Montreal Protocol’s Science Assessment Panel advised this week:

“Projections of HFC growth scenarios that assume no controls suggest that by 2050, GWP-weighted emissions of HFCs can be comparable to GWP-weighted emissions of CFCs at their peak in 1988.” 

In other words, every year we let HFCs keep growing, we take back a piece of the climate benefit that the Montreal Protocol has already delivered.  And by 2050 we could be back where we started, with HFCs doing as much climate damage as CFCs did at their peak production levels more than 20 years ago. 

Two proposals to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol have been advanced in Bangkok – one by Canada, the United States, and Mexico and the other by Mauritius, Micronesia, and other small island nations (see here and here).  Under these proposals, developed countries would take the lead in phasing down HFCs, and developing countries would do the same after a reasonable grace period and with financial assistance provided through the Multilateral Fund.  I’ve written more about these proposals here.  These proposals would also reduce emissions of the HFC-23 byproduct emissions from HCFC-22 plants, a special problem covered in a new NRDC report released yesterday. 

The good news is that support for curbing HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is growing.  The parties debated these proposals on Monday, and there was much wider support than one year ago.  Many parties acknowledged that the threat from HFCs is Montreal’s creation, and Montreal’s responsibility.  Many also emphasized that the Montreal Protocol has the legal authority, the technical capacity, and the capacity to mobilize financial assistance, to do this job effectively and equitably. 

But the bad news is that India, China, and Brazil continued to oppose action on HFCs.  They continued to give a mixture of reasons.  In part, they made legalistic and political arguments that HFCs must be considered only under the climate treaties.  In part, they expressed more practical concerns about the availability of alternatives and of funding through the Multilateral Fund.  Yet at the same time, they refused to allow formal discussion of alternatives information that is already available (for example, here, here, here, and here), or to authorize more work on alternatives by the Montreal Protocol’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel. 

So at one level, it appears that the HFC deadlock from last year continues unchanged.  But there are signs of change.  The wider support for curbing HFCs is reflected in the declaration issued today, which has more than twice the signatories of last year.  Behind the scenes, the North American and island countries have worked diplomatically both to gain supporters and to engage China and India.  While India has remained inflexible, key Chinese officials have signaled that curbing HFCs is an issue they can discuss. 

The proponents and supporters of the HFC phase-down have pledged to bring these proposals forward once again in 2011.  Next year, the parties will also negotiate contributions to the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund for the next three-year period.  The decision to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs was taken in 2007 in the context of Multilateral Fund replenishment negotiations.  As was true in 2007, it may be easier to come to grips with HFCs when money is on the table. 

Nothing happens quickly when it comes to international agreement on climate protection measures.  But the Montreal Protocol remains a more attractive pathway than the climate talks for making progress on HFCs.  Persistence often pays off.  We will keep at this next year. 

***

Here is the text of the HFC declaration by 91 parties:

Declaration on the Global Transition Away From Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

Recognizing that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are replacements for ozone depleting substances (ODS) being phased out under the Montreal Protocol, and that the projected increase in their use is a major challenge for the world’s climate system that must be addressed through concerted international action,

Recognizing also that the Montreal Protocol is well-suited to making progress in replacing hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) with low-GWP alternatives,

Mindful that certain high-GWP alternatives to HCFCs and other ODS are covered by the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol and that action under the Montreal Protocol should not have the effect of exempting them from the scope of the commitments contained thereunder,

Interested in harmonizing appropriate policies toward a global transition from HCFCs to environmentally sound alternatives,

Encourage all Parties to promote policies and measures aimed at selecting low-GWP alternatives to HCFCs and other ODS,

Declare our intent to pursue further action under the Montreal Protocol aimed at transitioning the world to environmentally sound alternatives to HCFCs and CFCs.

Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, Cameroon, Canada, Columbia, Comoros, Congo, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Estonia, European Union, Federated States of Micronesia, Finland, France, Gabon, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Haiti, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Micronesia, Montenegro, Mozambique, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Palau, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States of America, Vietnam

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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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