India and the United States Make Progress on HFC Super-Pollutants

The pace of action to phase down the super-potent heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) quickened yesterday when U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced new joint steps towards controlling HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that saved the ozone layer. 

The cooperative steps on HFCs announced at the two leaders’ Washington summit build on progress among the world’s largest economies at the recent G-20 meeting, and a pair of breakthrough bilateral accords between President Obama and Chinese President Xi.  This summer’s rapid developments promise to end a stand-off between more than 110 countries backing HFC curbs under the Montreal treaty and a small number of countries, led by China and India, that had been opposed.  The way is open for serious discussions, which began at the Montreal Protocol parties’ last meeting in June, now to progress into formal negotiation of an HFC amendment.

Describing climate change as “a defining challenge of our time,” and recognizing the “mutual benefits to intensifying cooperation,” yesterday’s U.S.-India accord addresses HFCs in these paragraphs:

The two leaders agreed to immediately convene the India-U.S. Task Force on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to discuss, inter alia, multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the consumption and production of HFCs, based on economically viable and technically feasible alternatives, and include HFCs within the scope of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol for accounting and reporting of emissions.

The Leaders are committed to support the full implementation of the agreed outcomes under the UNFCCC with its ongoing negotiations. They strongly welcomed the efforts of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to mobilize political will through 2014 toward the successful adoption of a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the convention applicable to all parties by 2015, during COP-21 that France stands ready to host. They also supported complementary initiatives, through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and the consumption of HFCs, based on the examination of economically viable and technically feasible alternatives. They will continue to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol for accounting and reporting of emissions.

Coming the same day that the IPCC sounded its sharpest alarm on climate change science, the India-U.S. agreement is a good omen of continuing progress.  It echoes the G-20’s commitment to phase down production and consumption of the HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, while continuing to report emissions of these chemicals under the climate treaties.  The June and September U.S.-China agreements follow this same formula.  Likewise, the BASIC group – Brazil, South Africa, India, and China – agreed earlier this month, in diplomatic code, to moving forward on HFCs under Montreal:

Ministers agreed that hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) should be dealt with through relevant multilateral fora, guided by the principles and provisions of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol.  The availability of safe and technically and economically viable alternatives and the provision of additional financial resources by developed countries should also be taken into account.

So the diplomatic path forward is now open, but there is much work still to be done.  All of the summer’s statements underscore the need for further interchange on the range of substitute chemicals and technologies that are available now and coming soon.  The revived U.S.-India bilateral task force could be helpful on these tasks.  In the Montreal Protocol forum, the parties need to negotiate acceptable schedules for phasing down HFC production and use, and mutually agreeable financial arrangements through that treaty's multilateral fund.

In short, India, the U.S., and China, together with the other Montreal Protocol parties, need to do the normal work of negotiating agreements under that treaty, something they have done literally a dozen times or more.  Montreal is called the world’s most successful environmental treaty for good reason.  Every country in the world is a party, and over its 25-year lifetime, the entire world has eliminated the ozone-destroying CFCs and other chemicals – nearly a hundred dangerous compounds in all. 

All of the Montreal Protocol’s many agreements reflect the principles of common but differentiated responsibility that are core values for India and other developing countries, with binding control measures and differentiated schedules for all countries, under which developed countries act first, and developing countries follow with appropriate financial assistance.

India has much to gain.  Its people are already suffering from droughts, heat waves, floods, and storms that will only get worse as the climate changes.  And a transition to climate-friendly and energy-efficient cooling technology cannot come too soon as India’s growing middle class demands the comforts of air conditioning.  NRDC and partners have shown that the technologies are there for Cooling India With Less Warming.  (Yesterday’s agreement also includes important new U.S.-India initiatives on energy-efficient air conditioning.)

The Montreal parties convene again October 21st in Bangkok.  Hopefully, they will build on the progress made on HFCs at their June meeting, and on the agreements reached this summer among the world’s biggest countries.  It is perfectly within their reach to hammer out an HFC agreement over the coming year, and to sign it at the next meeting of the parties in fall 2014.

That would be a real climate protection achievement, and a big confidence-builder for the larger climate talks set to culminate in 2015.