Deal on HFC Super-Pollutants Inches Forward

A global deal to phase down the powerful heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs) inched forward after a week of international negotiations in Bangkok under the Montreal Protocol, the world's most successful environmental treaty.

Prospects for progress rose sharply in mid-April when India put forward its own proposal to phase down HFCs using the Montreal treaty. The Indian initiative means there are now four specific phase-down proposals under discussion - including ones from the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, from Micronesia, and from the European Union. China also supports an HFC phase-down. Curbing HFCs also has the support of the entire African bloc and nearly all Latin American, Asian, and small island nations. (NRDC and our partners have put together a fact sheet on the four proposals.)

HFCs are manufactured chemicals used in air conditioning and other applications. They have up to 10,800 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, on a pound for pound basis. And they are the fastest growing climate-changing pollutants, on pace to make up as much as a quarter of the heat-trapping pollution in the atmosphere by mid-century.

The Bangkok meeting began with a two-day workshop documenting rapid progress in developing new low-impact coolants and air conditioning equipment to use them. Solutions are on the market or under development for nearly every HFC application. An HFC phase-down agreement will send the market signals needed for full-scale deployment of the solutions.

The Bangkok meeting showed the broad support that has developed in the six years since the North American and small island countries introduced the first HFC phase-down proposals in 2009. The biggest developing countries - China, India, and Brazil - are ready to engage. And the African Group - all 54 nations on the continent - is united in driving the process forward.

But the meeting also showed that not everyone is onboard. Saudi Arabia and a small group of clients - including Kuwait, Pakistan, and Bahrain - prevented actual negotiations from getting under way, just as they had at the last meeting in November 2014. Specifically, they opposed forming a "contact group," the formal vehicle for hammering out solutions to specific problems.

The Montreal Protocol's tradition of action by consensus, while usually a source of strength, turns into a major obstacle when the majority is ready to move but a few countries are dissatisfied.

Saudi Arabia struck a defiant tone through much of the meeting. "We will never agree in one year, five years, or 100 years" to start these negotiations, declared Taha Zatari, the chief Saudi delegate on Thursday. Frustrations boiled over on Friday morning, when Senegal, speaking on behalf of the entire African Group, accused Saudi Arabia of "blocking" - tough talk in a diplomatic setting.

On the surface, the Saudis have a plausible complaint: It's really hot in our part of the world, and we need to be sure that we will have new air conditioning technologies before committing to new requirements.

The fallacy of the Saudi position is that none of the HFC phase-down proposals would require countries with hot climates to curb HFC use now. All of the HFC proposals contemplate that developing countries will act after developed countries, with financial assistance from the Protocol's Multilateral Fund.

It is easy to imagine a schedule for developing country reductions that provides plenty of time before HFC reductions kick in. And to add special provisions that allow extra time, if needed, to perfect alternatives for air conditioning in very high temperatures.

Countries backing an HFC phase-down made it crystal clear that they are open to these solutions. But the Saudis are having trouble taking "yes" for an answer.

Clearly concerned about being tagged as "blockers," the Saudis softened their stance Friday afternoon. They agreed to holding an "intersessional" meeting in the next two months, "with a view toward establishing a contact group" on HFC proposals at the next negotiating session in Paris in July. Only a small concession, but movement nonetheless.

And so the Bangkok meeting achieved its minimum objectives: solidifying support for acting on HFCs and inching the process forward.

Nearly every country will come to Paris in July ready to roll up its sleeves and start hammering out an agreement. A landmark HFC deal could be reached as early as November, when the Montreal Protocol parties meet in Dubai.

An HFC phase-down agreement would be a big deal in its own right, and it would be a shot in the arm towards the bigger climate change deal countries are seeking to reach in Paris in December.

But the Saudis can still block the process. Do they want to take the heat?