Kigali HFC Update #2: Ambition Hangs in the Balance

It’s Wednesday night and we’re nearing the home stretch in talks in Kigali, Rwanda, over a freeze and phase-down of the super-potent climate pollutants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Encouragingly, all countries are acting as if they expect to reach a deal on a Montreal Protocol amendment by the end of the week. Real negotiations are underway, both in large, open meetings and in smaller groups where the details and tradeoffs can get hammered out. Ministers are coming to town (including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy) to help solve problems that still remain. 

The prospect of an ambitious agreement that can avoid a half degree Celsius of dangerous additional warming hangs in the balance. An early HFC freeze and phase-down is possibly the easiest way to cut climate pollution. It will pay a double climate dividend, because more efficient air conditioners will cut power needs and pollution from developing countries’ over-stressed electric grids. 

Developed and developing countries are negotiating timetables for each group to freeze and phase down their production and use of HFCs. It’s customary under the Montreal Protocol for developed countries to start reducing chemicals first and for developing countries to follow after a grace period, assisted by funding provided by developed countries. 

Generally speaking, the same pattern is likely to be followed for HFCs. Developed countries are pressing for developing countries to adopt realistic baselines (the starting point for measuring reductions), to freeze in HFC growth starting in the early 2020s, and to make specific phase-down steps thereafter. Developed countries are promising more financial assistance in return for speedier action. Developing countries want tighter baselines and faster HFC cuts from the developed countries, as well.

But a split has appeared among the developing countries on how fast to freeze and replace these climate pollutants. Most developing countries, including China (the world’s biggest HFC producer), Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, and other big users, are ready for a freeze in the first half of the 2020s and reductions that start by 2030 or before.  On the other hand, India, Pakistan, and Persian Gulf States are holding out for a later start, with a freeze taking hold only in the late 2020s and the first reductions occurring well after 2030.

So the dominant question being considered now is whether there should be two groups of developing countries with two separate schedules.  This evening, developing countries circulated a specific proposal. On the one hand, the largest number of developing countries (including China and most other developing country HFCs producers) are proposing a freeze in 2024 or 2025, and phase-down steps starting by 2030. On the other hand, India and the other countries mentioned above want to lag behind, with HFC growth continuing at least into the late 2020s and initial reductions postponed to 2032. 

India asserts that it needs large room for growth in potent HFCs (like R-410A) to meet rapidly growing demand for air conditioning, and that it needs extra time to adopt new technologies. But there is significant evidence to the contrary from India’s own plans for phasing out HCFCs (another set of chemicals already subject to the Montreal Protocol). Those plans show that Indian air conditioner manufacturers are already leapfrogging over R-410A to adopt much less potent alternatives (R-32, a mid-range HFC, and R-290, a hydrocarbon). 

Countries that opt for the later start and slower phase-down may not be serving their own interests, as my colleague Anjali Jaiswal explored yesterday. They will likely not be eligible for early financial assistance from the Multilateral Fund, or access to funding from private foundations that recently announced $53 million in near-term funding to improve energy efficiency. Nor will they be able to access the $1 billion in World Bank energy efficiency lending, which is intended to accompany an ambitious HFC phasedown. Companies in late-moving countries will fall behind their peers in other developing countries in adopting alternative refrigerants and state-of-the-art air conditioning technologies. They will find themselves in a technological backwater.

The developing countries’ proposal would allow countries in the second, slower group to elect to accelerate and join the first group. We hope they will make that choice this week, and obviate the need for a second, slower track.

Importantly, the baseline levels (the starting-point quantities against which countries measure their freeze and reductions) also remain at issue. Baselines for both developed and developing countries must realistically reflect countries’ historical or near-future use and must not be inflated with “hot air” that weakens the freeze and reduction steps.

Ministers and negotiators will hammer out these and other issues by the end of the week. As always, look for the final negotiations to extend deep into Friday night, or until Saturday. We’ll post more updates.