HFCs: Is This the Year to Curb these Super Greenhouse Gases?

Time for an update on new moves to control hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – a group of powerful global warming chemicals – under the Montreal Protocol and the Clean Air Act.

I’ve written here and here about the opportunity to make quick reductions in HFCs – some of which have thousands of times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide (CO2).  

To many observers, curbing HFCs is the next logical step to be taken under the Montreal Protocol, the successful global treaty adopted in 1987 to protect the ozone layer.  Every country on earth now belongs to the Montreal treaty, which has virtually eliminated worldwide production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and is on the way to doing the same to hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) – the HFCs’ older brothers. 

Phasing out CFCs and HCFCs has also delivered big climate protection benefits, because these ozone-destroying chemicals are also powerful heat-trapping greenhouse gases.  The worldwide elimination of CFCs has delivered a climate protection bonus equivalent to 11 billion tons of CO2 reductions in this year alone.  That’s also equivalent to delaying the expected growth in global CO2 emissions by 7-12 years

HFCs differ from the other members of the fluorocarbon family in that they are “only” greenhouse gases; they lack the chlorine that causes ozone depletion.  HFCs are subject to the climate treaties (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol), but CO2 claims the lion’s share of attention in those venues, and little has been done there to seize the opportunity for quick HFC reductions. 

Looking for faster progress, last year the United States, Canada, and Mexico jointly proposed to amend the Montreal treaty to add a global phase down of HFCs. The North American proposal complemented a similar initiative by a coalition of small island nations led by Micronesia and Mauritius.  An agreement proved out of reach last year, but now the two groups of countries are renewing their proposals for consideration this year.

The Montreal Protocol has a proven formula for balanced global action.  For more than 20 years, both developed and developing countries have accepted binding schedules for eliminating listed chemicals.  Developing countries are allowed a few years more time and receive help adopting alternatives through a Multilateral Fund (MLF) jointly managed by 15 developed and developing countries.

But last year’s consideration of these HFC proposals took place under the gathering storm clouds leading to the December 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations.  While many countries looked with interest on the North American and island nations initiatives, several countries – notably China and India – chose to hold their cards for Copenhagen.  They raised a number of technical concerns, plus a legal contention that HFCs are the business of the climate treaties.  So the Montreal process reached an impasse, but with the door left open to reconsider this year.

The focus then shifted to the climate talks in Copenhagen last December.  That difficult meeting ended with some progress, as represented in the Copenhagen Accord.  But the Accord did not deal with HFCs.  

So this spring the three North American countries and the island coalition have resubmitted their proposals for action to curb HFCs under Montreal (see here and here).  

Is there reason to think that this year’s Montreal talks will produce better results?  It’s possible, of course, that China and India will remain in no mood to strike a deal.  But here are some reasons for optimism.  

First, last month the 15 countries on the executive board of the Multilateral Fund resolved a lingering disagreement that had soured last year’s HFC negotiations.  The Montreal parties agreed in 2007 to accelerate their phase-out of HCFCs, but by 2009 developed and developing countries still had not settled the formula for determining the “agreed incremental costs” of adopting alternatives.  Some delegations asked why they should be asked to consider curbs on a new set of chemicals before tying up arrangements for the last ones.  Fortunately, the agreement on HCFC funding removes this obstacle and clears the decks for a fresh look at HFCs. 

Second, while the Copenhagen Accord falls short of a new climate treaty, it did result in the first set of commitments to reduce carbon emissions by both developed and developing countries.  Those countries have been making binding commitments on ozone-destroying chemicals for two decades, but in the prelude to Copenhagen, neither China nor India was willing to cross this threshold under the Montreal treaty for chemicals that are greenhouse gases but not ozone-depleters.  After taking the plunge on carbon reduction measures in the Copenhagen Accord, China and India may be more willing to consider HFC commitments this year in the Montreal forum, if appropriate funding assistance can be worked out.    

Third, the very fact that the climate talks are expected to move slowly this year may lead countries to look for other opportunities for progress.  An HFC agreement could fit that bill. 

We’ll get our first indication whether this year will differ from last when the Montreal parties convene in Geneva next month for their mid-year meeting.  They'll meet again in November in Uganda, where an agreement on HFCs could be formalized.

Here at home, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken new steps under the Clean Air Act to reduce reliance on HFCs.  EPA has proposed to approve petitions for the use of non-HFC refrigerants – hydrocarbons – in home refrigerators and some other kinds of cooling equipment.  EPA has also proposed to approve a new HFC, known as HFO-1234yf, for use in car air conditioners.  This compound has global warming potential (GWP) of only 4, more than 300 times less than the current mobile air conditioning refrigerant, HFC-134a, which has a GWP of 1430.  Last Friday, NRDC petitioned EPA to end the use of HFC-134a in mobile air conditioning. 

Congress is considering HFC reductions as well.  The climate and energy bill passed by the House of Representatives last year would amend the Clean Air Act to phase down HFC production by at least 85 percent by 2032.  Legislation expected to be released next week by Senators Kerry and Lieberman will likely contain the same provisions. 

So this may be the year.  Watch here for updates.