The Oasis of an HFC Amendment: Not a Mirage, But Still a Dune or Two Away

At the close of a week's negotiations in Dubai, countries have made progress toward the oasis of an HFC phase-down amendment to the Montreal Protocol. If they keep driving their camels, there's hope they can reach the oasis in 2016.

The first proposals to use the highly successful Montreal treaty to phase down the super heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons were made six years ago. Now there are four proposed HFC amendments sponsored by more than 40 countries, with support from a broad majority of the world's nations.

A steadily dwindling band of opponents has posed one objection after another, however. It has often seemed like climbing up and down an endless series of sand dunes. You can trace the journey in my blogs over the years.

Coming into Dubai, there was hope that we might achieve a breakthrough agreement on an HFC amendment at this annual ministerial-level meeting, as a lead-in to the Paris climate talks in December. You could see the oasis in the distance. We did not reach it this week, but countries made enough progress to convince me that it is not a mirage.

As the week began, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Argentina, and a few others dropped objections to forming an HFC "contact group" to begin negotiating an amendment. The contact group met intensively through the week, and though the discussion had its ups and downs, on the whole parties reduced their posturing and productively addressed real challenges and effective solutions.

The U.S. delegation, led by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, worked hard outside the room, in bilaterals with other ministers and delegation heads. McCarthy's direct involvement recalls the key role of her predecessors Lee Thomas and Bill Reilly in achieving the CFC phase-out almost three decades ago. It demonstrates the Obama administration's strong commitment to curb HFCs under the Montreal Protocol as part of its broader push for global climate progress in Paris and climate action at home.

While many details remain to be worked out, the general outline of solutions is not new. It follows the Montreal Protocol's proven formula for success: Both developed and developing countries would agree to limit HFCs, with developing countries given more time and funding to cover transition costs. The parties would use the existing Multilateral Fund to administer transitional funding. They would use the Technical and Economic Assessment Panel to periodically asses the pace of technology development. They would allow temporary exemptions if necessary, for example, to perfect alternatives for air conditioning in very hot climates.

Not every problem has been solved. There is still a large gap between the parties on how long developing countries should have to freeze and reduce HFCs. The Indian proposal, for example, would impose no limits until 2031, while the other three proposals - from North America, the island states, and the European Union - envision HFC curbs beginning much sooner. (The proposals are compared here and here.) India is also demanding more expansive funding assistance than has been provided in controlling prior chemicals, as well as broad concessions on patent rights.

Early Friday morning, the Dubai meeting closed with an agreement to "work within the Montreal Protocol to an HFC amendment in 2016," and to intensify the pace of negotiations on remaining issues with a series of extra meetings, including an "extraordinary meeting of the parties" - an extra, ministerial-level, decision-making meeting that has been held only twice before in the Protocol's nearly 30 year history.

We are not at the oasis, but my camel can smell the water.


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