Phasing-Down HFCs: Commitments in Rio Hit the Wall in Bangkok One Month Later

The U.S. proposal to curb the “super greenhouse gases” called HFCs hit the wall today at Montreal Protocol negotiations in Bangkok, blocked again by India, China, and Brazil. 

In one of the most concrete outcomes of the Rio+20 summit last month, world leaders committed to phase-down HFC production and consumption.  See here, paragraph 222:

We recognize that the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances is resulting in a rapid increase in the use and release of high global-warming potential hydrofluorocarbons to the environment.  We support a gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.

But barely one month later, diplomatic underlings from India, China, and Brazil scuttled their bosses’ commitments, and would not even allow discussion of an HFC phase-down to start.

Apparently their commitment to safeguard the climate from HFCs had less than a one-month half-life.

The United States, together with Canada and Mexico, proposed a global phase-down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, the successful treaty that has saved the ozone layer and slowed the pace of climate change.  The vulnerable island nation of Micronesia advanced a similar proposal. 

The proposals follow the 25-year-old Montreal Protocol’s proven formula.  Developed countries would start cutting HFC production and consumption, and developing countries would follow, with specific schedules and funding assistance.

The breakneck pace of HFC growth is a direct outgrowth of the Montreal Protocol’s success at phasing out of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.  If HFC growth continues, these chemicals will add the equivalent of nearly 100 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next four decades, drastically worsening climate change. 

The vast majority of nations present here in Bangkok want to move forward, to defuse the growing HFC bomb.  As one delegate put it:  “We created this problem, and we are responsible for cleaning it up.” 

But the three developing giants stood in the way.  Despite their leaders’ commitment in Rio, the Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian negotiators here in Bangkok continued to play diplomatic games.  HFCs should be left to the barely-functioning climate treaties, they argued.  Others countries responded that the Montreal Protocol gives parties the legal authority and responsibility to assure the safety of substitutes.

The blockers also argued that HFC alternatives are not available.  But they ignored the growing number of safer alternatives on the market and under development -- many of which were on display at an amazing technical conference (Advancing Ozone & Climate Protection Technologies: Next Steps) held here last weekend, with global participation by more than 400 industry innovators and government policy-makers.  Dozens of companies from all over the world presented their wares, including energy-efficient, HFC-free air conditioners made by Godrej Industries in India and Gree Electrical Products in China, and other products made with a range of lower-impact chemicals, including hydrocarbons and new compounds called HFOs.

“There is no single alternative,” the Indian negotiator kept saying.  That’s right, just like there’s no single drug for cancer.  What we need, and what we’re getting, is a range of alternatives, each suited to a different use, just like we count on a range of drugs to fight cancer.

“We don’t have all the proven substitutes right now,” the same negotiator kept saying.  That was true 25 years ago, when the Montreal parties agreed to phase out of CFCs. 

In fact, we know more about HFC alternatives today than we knew about CFC alternatives 25 years ago.  With a clear policy in place, the pace of innovation accelerated and solutions cascaded onto the market.  That’s what we need today for HFCs. 

To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If you build the phase-out schedule, the solutions will come.”

Indian and Chinese negotiators repeatedly refer to their “industry stakeholders,” meaning a handful of chemical producers that have bet on HFCs and are reluctant to change.  Ironically, those companies are headed for a technological cul-de-sac filled with obsolete products. 

American, European, and Japanese companies are racing to commercialize new alternatives – some fluorinated and others not.  Future markets will belong to the innovators.  It’s a wonder that these three developing country giants, who are on the leading edge in so many technologies, are resisting innovation and change here.

The U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Micronesia were very clear that their HFC proposals aren’t going away.  The vast majority of countries want to act.  China candidly, and uncomfortably, acknowledged that the blockers are in the minority. 

The next meeting of the Montreal Protocol will be in Geneva in November.  Expect the diplomatic and public pressure on the blockers to keep growing.