"At Some Point of Time We Will Go With This Proposal" - Despite Opponents, Sense of Inevitability Grows at Talks on Curbing the Super-Warming HFCs

Countries jousted again over proposals to replace the super-potent heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol, the world’s most successful environmental treaty.   Saudi Arabia and Kuwait emerged as the most vociferous opponents.  But the large majority of countries, both developed and developing, voiced support for moving ahead, and even some of the opponents are viewing an HFC agreement as inevitable.  Here’s a rundown on where key countries stand in the talks on HFCs that took place last week in Paris.

Workshop on HFC Management

The Paris session began with an HFC management workshop on July 11-12, well-attended by more than 400 country delegates, scientific, technical, and legal experts, and industry and environmental observers.  Top takeaways: 

  • Scientists showed that HFC production, use, and emissions are growing much faster than emissions of CO2 or other heat-trapping pollutants, with a staggering 10-fold increase expected in developing countries by 2030, and 30 to 50-fold growth expected by 2050.  HFCs will transform from a bit player into a monster, accounting for about 20 percent of total heat-trapping pollution. 
  • Technical experts observed that we know more about HFC alternatives now than we did at the start of the CFC phase-out a quarter century ago.  They showed that low-GWP (global warming potential) alternatives are already available for many applications, with more alternatives under development.  While some areas require more work – e.g., perfecting air conditioning in the highest temperature conditions, and adopting standards for safely managing flammable refrigerants – a phase-down regime can be designed to accommodate developing country needs for lead-time, financial assistance, and other concerns.
  • Representatives of the European Union, Japan, and the United States reported on recent domestic initiatives, including phase-down legislation adopted in the E.U. and "SNAP" rules just proposed in the U.S. to eliminate some of the largest HFC uses.
  • Finance experts discussed the way that developing countries’ needs have been met through the Multilateral Fund, and how assistance could be increased to cover an HFC phase-down.
  • Legal experts generally agreed that countries can phase down of production and consumption of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol in full harmony with the climate change treaties.  

HFC Negotiations

Delegates gathered July 14-18, to report on implementation of their current Montreal Protocol commitments, and to consider two proposed amendments to add controls for HFCs – the North American proposal offered by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and a proposal sponsored by Micronesia and Morocco.  The climate protection benefits of these proposals are large – they could avoid the equivalent of nearly 100 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide between now and 2050.  Over the six years that these proposals have been offered, support for pursuing HFC amendments has grown steadily to include the large majority of countries, both developed and developing. 

The breadth of support for forming a “contact group” to start negotiations was evident again in the Paris talks.  Forming a contact group, however, like other Montreal Protocol decisions, requires consensus, and about a dozen countries continued to stand in the way.  That might sound like a repeat of last year, but underneath this top-line summary, there were significant shifts:

  • China:  China struck a practical and constructive tone throughout the meeting.  Though China initially opposed the HFC proposals, claiming HFCs could be addressed only under the climate treaties, the country shifted position last year.  In two 2013 summits, Presidents Obama and Xi committed to work together to phase down HFC production and consumption under the Montreal Protocol.  High-level leaders reiterated these commitments at an energy summit earlier this month.  At the Paris workshop, participants from Chinese industries reported on progress developing alternatives.  Going substantially further than last year, in the HFC debate the Chinese delegation stated its readiness to consider “multilateral solutions” and to move forward in the spirit of cooperation characteristic of the Montreal Protocol.
  • India:  The most outspoken opponent of HFC amendments in past years, India took a more muted stance this year.  To be sure, India’s new delegate stated the same position – that HFCs belong under the climate treaties, and that alternatives are not yet ready for all applications – but without the vehemence and repetition of past years.  There is speculation that the new government of Prime Minister Modi might be reconsidering India’s position on HFCs, as well as broader climate issues; perhaps more will become clear in September at the UN Secretary-General’s climate summit in New York.
  • Saudi Arabia and Kuwait:  These two countries emerged as the most vehement opponents of action on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.  Although opposed in prior years, neither had been outspoken.  This year they took the lead in every facet of the debate, intervening over and over to contest the jurisdiction of the Montreal Protocol.  Counter to the predominant view that the Montreal Protocol gives parties the authority and responsibility to assure the safety of the alternatives that replace ozone-depleting chemicals, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait insisted that jurisdiction over HFCs lies only under the climate treaties.  They argued unconvincingly that HFCs could be productively addressed in climate negotiations that are already overloaded with other issues.  As a separate condition, they argued that satisfactory alternatives had to be commercially available for every HFC use – most especially high temperature air conditioning – before phase-down negotiations may even start. 
  • Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.  While a number of Middle East countries (e.g., Oman, Bahrain, and Iraq) supported Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, others did not.  Egypt and Jordan spoke up repeatedly for compromise and engagement.  Morocco held fast to the Micronesian proposal.
  • South Africa and the African Group.  An important supporter last year, South Africa spoke up with even greater force this year for action on the HFC amendments.  South Africa emphasized that countries acted before on other chemicals without total certainty of alternatives or of exemptions.  Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, Kenya, Gambia, and the Seychelles all supported moving to a contact group.
  • Latin America.  Argentina, Uruguay, and Cuba opposed a contact group, while Columbia, Costa Rica, Chile, and Caribbean island countries of St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, the Dominican Republic supported moving forward.  Brazil opposed a contact group but urged more Multilateral Fund funding for HFC alternatives.  The U.S. and other amendment proponents responded by promising to provide more funding in connection with phase-down commitments by developed and developing countries.  
  • Australia said it was tired of hearing only of problems from countries not willing to join in a contact group, the purpose of which would be to explore and develop solutions to those problems.  The European Union suggested it might have concrete proposals to bridge gaps, which should be explored in a contact group.

The end result was, as last year, formation of a “discussion group” on HFC management and the amendment proposals, rather than a full-fledged contact group.  Countries met in this discussion forum for three hours on Friday morning. 

Many parties are obviously weary of the so-far inconclusive debate over HFCs.  At the same time, however, there are signs and hints that many opponents view it as only a matter of time before they join in HFC negotiations and conclude a satisfactory amendment.  As Pakistan’s representative put it:  “At some point of time we will go for this proposal.”  Likewise, the Philippines were “not yet ready” to phase down HFCs, and Iran was “not at this stage” in favor of a contact group. They see the merits and are keeping their options open.

It remains to be seen what Saudi Arabia’s and Kuwait’s real interests are.  If their true interest is in solving the problem of efficient cooling in high temperature conditions, their current stance is slowing the development of those solutions.  Ironically, Saudi Arabia and other high temperature countries are moving at full speed now to adopt an HFC refrigerant (HFC-410A) that does not cool as effectively or efficiently in high temperatures as emerging alternatives.  Saudi Arabia is hosting a conference on high temperature air conditioning in October in Riyadh.  Are they open to technical solutions?   

Alternatively, the Saudis and their allies are simply taking the HFC proposals and the Montreal Protocol as hostage, in the bigger game of the climate negotiations set to climax in Paris in late 2015.  This does not bode well if the Saudis’ the real objective is only to block a larger climate agreement. 

There is still time to prove otherwise, however.  Even the Saudis know they face risks and consequences if all they do is block progress in both the Montreal Protocol and the larger climate talks.  With China now taking a positive stance, India considering its options, and many current opponents treating a Montreal HFC agreement as inevitable, the stiffest remaining adversaries may find it wiser to relent.