A Boost in Bangkok for Curbing HFCs

Countries made significant progress towards curbs on HFCs – the super potent heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons – in talks this week in Bangkok between parties to the Montreal Protocol.  After years of diplomatic gridlock, they began genuine discussions on proposals to manage HFCs and phase them down. 

U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi catalyzed the change of tone and substance here by agreeing, three weeks ago, to cooperate on phasing down HFC production and consumption using the Montreal Protocol, while continuing HFC emissions accounting and reporting under the climate treaties.  

On Tuesday, the parties debated the two HFC proposals put forward by the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, and by Micronesia, Maldives, and Morocco.  In past years, those debates ended in stalemate, with the vast majority of developed and developing countries wanting to pursue HFC negotiations, but with China, India, Brazil and a handful of others opposed.

China took a different role this time – quiet in public debate, cooperative in behind-the-scenes efforts to get substantive discussions underway.  By Wednesday, a formula had been found for a “discussion group” on HFC management, to discuss the technical, financial, and legal issues involved in an HFC phase-down, and the relationship to the climate treaties.  (Though not called a “contact group,” the discussion group had all the same attributes.) 

The group held four productive sessions through the rest of the week.  They debated the availability and cost of alternative chemicals and technologies to replace HFCs.  (I’ll have more to say on alternatives in another post over the weekend.)  The U.S. and others presented information on the range of lower-impact alternatives available now or coming soon, while acknowledging that solutions were not yet at hand for every use.  India took the strongest view that alternatives were lacking.  Brazil and South Africa took more nuanced positions.   (My colleague Bhaskar Deol has more details here.)

In the final Friday session, the parties started talking plainly about the elements of a deal.  Brazil and South Africa laid out three concerns:  (1) building confidence that alternatives are available, (2) building confidence that developed countries will contribute sufficient additional funding to the Multilateral Fund, and (3) working out the relationship between the Montreal Protocol and the climate treaties. 

The first two issues are the bread-and-butter of the Montreal Protocol.  The parties have worked out many agreements in the past 25 years on phase-out schedules for developed and developed countries and on funding to assist the latter.  The basic deal is this:  Developing countries need financial assistance to enter into binding commitments.  Developed countries need the binding commitments in order to provide the financial assistance.

The third issue is new with HFCs.  The U.S.-China agreement neatly frames the issue:  how to “us[e] the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, while continuing to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.”   Brazil raised legalistic concerns about the relationship between the treaties, while the U.S. and Micronesia (which fights well above its weight) argued that they are independent.  South Africa raised practical issues, noting the advantages of managing HFCs under Montreal but raising questions of precedent for addressing with other manufactured greenhouse gases (such as sulfur hexafluoride).  

As South Africa noted, and Brazil agreed, the legal issues can be solved once the parties decide what they really want to accomplish.  Treaties are contracts between nations, and so where there is a will, there is a way. 

The heart of the HFC negotiations will be what it always has been under the Montreal Protocol:  the negotiation of appropriate phase-down schedules for both developed and developing countries, coupled with appropriate funding assistance. 

Those negotiations have now begun in earnest.  There is a good deal to be had – good for all the participants, and good for the climate.  Let’s get at it.