India, U.S. Ratchet Up Progress on Super-Warming HFCs

India and the United States strengthened their commitments to strong climate action today—particularly on the supercharged climate pollutants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  During his visit to Washington, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama pledged to work for an HFC agreement this year under the Montreal Protocol that includes “an ambitious phasedown schedule” for all countries and “increased financial support” to the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to help developing countries with implementation. 

These are the key ingredients for a landmark climate pact that builds on last year’s historic Paris agreement. 

HFCs, used primarily in refrigerators and air conditioners, are potent and man-made chemicals that will contribute heavily to dangerous climate change by mid-century if their rapid growth is not checked. An HFC agreement this year would bring a successful end to talks underway under the Montreal Protocol for close to a decade. 

India has recently championed efforts to reach agreement after raising concerns in years past. In April 2015, India offered its own proposal to cover HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, pushing negotiations into the home stretch.

India’s original proposal, however, would allow developing countries, including India and China, too long to keep increasing their HFC use through 2030. As I told the Washington Post, it doesn’t make sense for India to build an industry that is a generation behind, and then for donor countries to pay to dismantle it. Other proposals to update the treaty—from North America, the European Union, and the Federated States of Micronesia—include ambitious, achievable schedules that allow HFC growth to continue through 2020 at the latest, but then quickly transition to the next generation of climate-friendlier chemicals.

Today’s announcement, supporting an “ambitious phasedown schedule,” raises expectations that negotiators will be able to bridge the gap between these proposals with near-term action. As always, the formula for success under the nearly 30-year-old Montreal Protocol is to marry action by all countries with donor country support for implementation by developing countries. Obama and Modi agreed to: “work to adopt an HFC amendment in 2016 with increased financial support from donor countries to the Multilateral Fund to help developing countries with implementation, and an ambitious phasedown schedule, under the Montreal Protocol pursuant to the Dubai Pathway.” Because HFCs are such super heat-trapping pollutants, the equivalent of tens of billions of tons of CO2 emissions hang in the balance.  An HFC phasedown between now and 2050 would be roughly equal to avoiding the current CO2 emissions of the entire planet for 2-3 years.

As another sign of momentum, the U.S. and China also today reaffirmed their joint commitment to completing an ambitious HFC deal this year, in a joint communique from the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This complementary announcement brings the two fastest-growing developing countries into alignment, further boosting prospects for well-financed, ambitious HFC cuts.  

At an HFC negotiating session in Geneva in April, countries tentatively agreed on a solution to concerns of countries with the most extreme hot temperatures, and they got down to brass tacks by focusing on terms for supporting developing countries through the Multilateral Fund.  

But work remains. At the upcoming negotiating session in Vienna in July, parties need to lay out their bottom-line needs on the pace of the phasedown and the scale of financing.

Frank, bottom-line talks in Vienna will build the groundwork for sealing an agreement at October’s Meeting of the Parties in Kigali, Rwanda. If all goes well, a surprise deal could even be announced in Vienna. Either way, hard negotiation and strong cooperation are on track to achieve the second major global climate victory in as many years. 

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