Countries Accelerate Talks on Phasing Down HFC Super-Pollutants under the Montreal Protocol

Delegates from more than 100 countries breathed some life into proposals to phase down production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol, the world’s most successful environmental treaty.  Wrapping up a week of talks in Paris, diplomats agreed to hold talks starting in April 2015 on proposals to replace these super-potent heat-trapping chemicals – used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and other industrial applications – with climate-friendly alternatives. 

Two amendments have been offered to the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs – a North American proposal offered by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and another sponsored by Micronesia and other island nations.  The European Union has offered some ideas of its own. 

HFCs pose a fast-growing threat to the climate.  If their growth is left unchecked, they could account for 20 percent of total heat-trapping pollution emitted in 2050.  The climate protection benefits of phasing them down would be very large – the North American proposal, for example, would avoid the equivalent of 90 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050. 

The vast majority of countries, both developed and developing, favor dealing with HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. 

When first offered a half-dozen years ago, HFC proposals were opposed by China, India, and a handful of other countries.  But vigorous U.S. diplomacy yielded agreements to cooperate on HFCs – one announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi in September, and the other by President Obama and President Xi this November (building on prior U.S.-China HFC agreements over the last two years). 

Saudi Arabia, however, has emerged as a major obstacle, throwing sand into the negotiating gears all through the week.  Backed by a small number of regional clients and neighbors, the Saudis opposed formal negotiations based mainly on the claim that adequate substitutes are not presently available for air conditioning in very hot climates.  

This objection misses the mark.  First, suitable climate-friendly air conditioning products are already available for at least part of their needs.  Second, no immediate action is required; the pending HFC proposals allow a decade or more for industries to perfect and market high-temperature solutions before the proposed phase-down schedules would affect those products. 

So one is left to think the Saudis are playing a larger game of slowing, if not blocking, climate talks overall.   

Compared with previous years, China played a more constructive role this week, beginning to engage in the sort of technical discussions needed to work out practical solutions.  India’s Minister Prakash Javadekar sounded a hopeful note midweek, and India never expressly contradicted the Modi-Obama agreement.  But as the week came to an end, India joined just two other countries – Pakistan and Iran – in preventing an agreement to structure future negotiations.  One is left to wonder how this squares with the Prime Minister’s commitments.

As the talks ended, the parties did agree on an accelerated schedule for talks in 2015 on HFC limits.  An extra meeting will be held in April:  a two-day technical workshop focusing on air conditioning in very hot climates, followed by three days of talks on HFC proposals, including technical and financial issues.  The treaty’s technical advisers will gather more data on emerging alternatives.  Further negotiations will follow in July and November. 

That outcome keeps alive the potential of reaching an HFC agreement under the Montreal treaty next November, one that could give a boost to broader climate talks scheduled to conclude in Paris in December 2015.  As the Economist magazine put it:   “The road to Paris should run through Montreal.”