"Super Greenhouse Gas" Update: Will China and India Help Curb HFCs, Or Stand in the Way?

I’ve just arrived in Bangkok, where negotiators from around the world will convene next week for the mid-year meeting of the Montreal Protocol, the world’s most successful environmental treaty.  There they will look for common ground on whether use this treaty to tackle some of the most potent heat-trapping pollutants, the “super greenhouse gases” known as hydrofluorcarbons, or HFCs

To recap, the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-destroying chemicals under the Montreal Protocol has brought huge climate side-benefits because these chemicals are also powerful heat-trapping pollutants.  Scientists tell us that phasing out CFCs worldwide delivered a climate protection bonus equivalent to 11 billion tons of CO2 reductions in 2010 alone – more than five times the carbon reductions of the Kyoto Protocol. 

Another way to look at it:  The CFC phase-out bought us a 10-year delay on warming.  Imagine what this roaring-hot, extreme-weather summer would have been like with all that extra heat-trapping fuel in the atmosphere. 

But those benefits are now being eroded by the breakneck growth of HFCs as replacement chemicals in air conditioning, refrigeration, insulating foams, and other uses.  As the New York Times recently reported, air conditioning sales are growing at 20 percent per year in rapidly industrializing nations such as India and China.

Avoiding that HFC growth by transitioning to safer chemicals that trap much less heat could avoid an amazing amount of climate-changing pollution – equal to 88 billion metric tons of CO2 worldwide through 2050.  That's equivalent to 12 times the current annual carbon pollution of the United States.

Two similar proposals to gradually phase down HFCs have been advanced for several years by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and by Micronesia and other small island nations.  Support has grown each year, and last November 108 countries endorsed using the Montreal Protocol to tackle HFCs.  They agreed that the Montreal treaty is responsible for assuring the safety of replacement chemicals.  As one delegate put it last year, “we created this mess, and we have to clean it up.”

But India and China blocked action, with assistance from Brazil.  They argued that HFCs’ heat-trapping consequences can be addressed only under the climate treaties.  No one pretends this will happen any time soon. 

As the parties gather in Bangkok, the North American and island nations have relaunched their proposals, and the question is whether China, India, and Brazil will keep blocking, or whether one or more is ready to engage. 

A sign of possible progress came from the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Summit in June.  Deep in the final document adopted by world leaders in Rio, paragraph 222 speaks directly to HFCs: 

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.

The first sentence succinctly recognizes the dangerous climate consequences of rapid HFC growth and the direct link to the phase-out of ozone-destroying chemicals. The second sentence captures the essence of the North American and island nation proposals.  Neither China, India, nor host Brazil took any action to block the paragraph. 

Let’s read the tea leaves a little further:  The paragraph as originally proposed ended with these words:  “under the Montreal Protocol.”  Some delegation in Rio must have insisted on deleting that specificity.  On the other hand, the final language left intact the reference to “phas[ing] down”consumption and production.” These are terms unique to the Montreal Protocol.  By contrast, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol address “emissions.

Another possible sign of progress is that governments agreed to start the Bangkok meeting with a two-day technical conference entitled Advancing Ozone & Climate Protection Technologies: Next Steps.”  More than 400 participants from governments, industries, and non-governmental organizations are slated to attend on Saturday and Sunday, including hefty delegations from all the big developing countries.  Panels will include numerous Chinese and Indian industry speakers presenting views on a range of alternatives to the high-potency HFCs.  (I’ve been asked to give an environmental organization’s perspective, and I’ll report later on the results of the meeting.)

So do the Rio+20 outcome and the technical conference signal that a corner has been turned?  Will last year’s blockers allow constructive HFC negotiations to start this year?  Stay tuned for news from Bangkok next week.