Progress in Bangkok: India Begins Looking Beyond HFCs

Guest Blog by Bhaskar Deol, NRDC India Representative.

The Montreal Protocol’s 33rd Open Ended Working Group Meeting concluded this week in Bangkok. HFCs were high on the agenda. This year, again, there were two proposals for amending the Montreal Protocol to include a global phase down of HFCs. One from the US, Canada and Mexico; and another from Micronesia, the Maldives, and Morocco. NRDC’s report released with partners at this working group in Bangkok available here offers a background on the severe climate impacts of exploding HFC use, and the business case for phasing down these “super greenhouse gases.”

The past few years have seen talks stall, without even an agreement to sit across the table and formally discuss the problem of rapid growth of HFCs. Early this week, that impasse was broken, with an agreement between US, Mexico, Canada, India, China, Brazil, South Africa and Micronesia to establish an HFC “discussion group.” While not a formal “contact group” – the term usually used for a negotiating group – this group is functionally similar with session chairs moderating the discussion and presenting a report back to the plenary meeting. This is the first time the parties to the Montreal Protocol are holding a detailed formal conversation on the growing problem of HFCs.

The discussion group started with a mandate to discuss three things.

  • What are the legal, technical and financial aspects of managing HFCs using the Montreal Protocol, its Multilateral Fund and other mechanisms?
  • What is a possible pathway to address the phase-down of HFCs using the Montreal Protocol?
  • What options exist to establish a connection between the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Montreal Protocol?

The group made significant progress over several meetings and tackled head-on the key issues raised by countries over the past few years. Here is a summary of the key issues that emerged, and what they mean for India.

Legal Aspects

At the heart of the discussion on legal aspects was the question: which treaty should be responsible for HFCs – the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol, or the Montreal Protocol?

  • The climate treaties currently address only the emissions (not the production and consumption) of HFCs. The CDM mechanism gives controversial credits for developing country destruction of HFC-23, a powerful heat-trapping by-product of making the refrigerant HCFC-22.
  • The Montreal Protocol, on the other hand, has 25 years of proven track record to directly curb the production and consumption of a wide range of industrial gases, nipping the problematic pollutants in the bud.

A number of countries including India, Brazil and South Africa spoke of a need for legal clarity. Parties debated the necessity and wisdom of asking the UNFCCC for permission to assign sole responsibility for HFCs to the Montreal Protocol. They also discussed other possible arrangements for “mutual support” between the treaties. Some parties including the U.S. and EU took a position that the Montreal Protocol and the UNFCCC are independent, autonomous regimes, meaning that the parties are free to take up HFC controls under Montreal. Others expressed concerns over the jurisdictional boundaries of the treaties.

Undercutting that discussion was a broad acknowledgement that international law is contractual – that the real legal question is what commitments do the parties agree to? In that view, the parties to one treaty do not need permission from the other to tackle HFCs. An analogy a colleague made was: if I have permission from dad to stay out late at night, do I also need permission from mom? The dominant view appeared to be that if the parties of the Montreal Protocol could agree to an amendment that brings HFCs under its fold, the Montreal Protocol has legal autonomy to carry out its agreed mandate independent of Kyoto. But not all parties, including India, have agreed with this proposition just yet.

Technical Aspects

The technical discussion saw a rich dialogue between parties. Brazil and India raised concerns about the existence of HFC alternatives, and others flagged issues such as managing flammability risks associated with some alternatives, finding alternatives that work adequately at high ambient temperatures, or can be safely used in densely packed urban environments like the city of Singapore. Other parties noted that while there wasn’t a single technology solution, a bouquet of alternatives exists for different applications. Some are available today, and others are on the horizon. These parties believe the flexible phase-down and the availability of financial and technological assistance through the Multilateral Fund are well suited to address different countries’ needs. Brazil advocated using these mechanisms and allocating new funding resources to help developing countries start transitioning from HFCs, but without yet establishing binding phase-down obligations for these countries.

Financial Aspects

The last day of discussions focused on the financial aspects of the management of HFCs. Alternatives discussed ranged from using existing mechanisms – the Multilateral Fund – to the creation of new instruments. India raised concerns about the Fund’s past effectiveness in transferring technology, and suggested a financial mechanism that looked like the multilateral fund but was outside the Montreal Protocol. Others questioned India’s critique of the Fund and advocated using the institutions we already have. Most others agreed that the critical thing to know was what HFC transitions would cost – an analytical task for the Protocol’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP).

The main concern for developing countries was articulated well by South Africa: they simply didn't want to agree on binding commitments on reductions until they could see a technology pathway to get there, and the means for financing a transition that brought onboard new and additional resources. Developed countries noted that it was difficult to deliver funding in the absence of developing country commitments.

The discussions were remarkable in their openness and the willingness of parties to bring their concerns to the discussion table. To be sure, parties are staking out positions and preparing to bargain hard. But as my colleague David Doniger wrote in his blog yesterday, these are the kind of issues that are the bread and butter of the Montreal Protocol and what has made the Protocol one of the most successful international climate treaties to date. The one extra issue this time is finding the right relationship between the Protocol and climate treaties.

NRDC is focusing, with a range of Indian and international partners, on assisting Indian business and civil society to understand the alternative, climate-friendlier technologies available now and on the horizon, to leapfrog HFCs where they are not already used, and to reduce them where they are currently in play. NRDC’s recently launched paper, Cooling India with Less Warming, begins to highlight some of the lower-impact alternatives available today for the key sectors of mobile and room air conditioning. The paper studies why Indian companies are beginning to move to alternatives as countries discuss an international agreement and begin to adopt national policies.

This week has set the ball rolling on international discussions on the future of HFCs. India has led before in phasing out CFCs and other chemicals. Now Indian industry and government have the opportunity to examine their technical and policy options and, if they are proactive, to shape a deal that works for them while benefiting the global climate.