Three Amigos Move on Super Greenhouse Gases

The United States, Canada, and Mexico today announced a joint proposal to phase down a class of powerful global warming pollutants, called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), under the Montreal Protocol, the treaty adopted more than 20 years ago to protect the ozone layer.  I've written here about these so-called "super greenhouse gases" - some of them thousands of times more powerful than CO2 - which are growing rapidly, especially in some of the world's fastest growing economies.  

The North American proposal adds energy to the push for HFCs curbs begun earlier this year, with a phase-down proposal from Mauritius, Micronesia, and a coalition of small islands threatened by rising sea levels.  An agreement on HFCs could be reached as early as November, when the 195 parties to the Montreal Protocol assemble in Egypt.

The Montreal Protocol is best known for its success in eliminating ozone-depleting chemicals, including the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  But the treaty has also delivered huge climate protection benefits, because CFCs and many other ozone-depleting chemicals double as powerful heat-trapping gases.  A new study last July identified the climate risks in letting HFC growth continue and the climate protection opportunity in early action to move towards safer substitutes.  NRDC has called for fast action to curb HFCs under the Montreal treaty.

Today's proposal was foreshadowed at the "three amigos" summit last month where President Obama, Prime Minister Harper, and President Calderon pledged to "work together under the Montreal Protocol to phase down the use of HFCs and bring about significant reductions of this potent greenhouse gas."  In a communique today to other countries, the three governments said:  "An international freeze and phase down of HFCs would help avoid creating a serious environmental problem, achieve important climate benefits, and send a signal to the market concerning the need to develop and commercialize new alternatives."  (I'll add links when the North American proposal is posted on the United Nations Environment Program website. Update 9/17:  The proposal documents are posted here, here, and here.)

The US-Canada-Mexico proposal would freeze HFC production and consumption (a term meaning a country's production plus imports minus exports) in developed countries by 2013 and in developing countries in 2016.  Production and consumption would be reduced in steps by 85 percent by 2033 in developed countries, and by the same percentage in developing countries ten years later. 

Similar HFC reductions are called for in the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security Act (section 332) and are likely to be included in Senate legislation.

The proposed schedule follows the 20-year history of cooperation between developed and developing countries under the Montreal Protocol, where curbs on chemical production apply in both developed and developing countries.  Developing countries are given longer to act and receive technology transfer assistance from developed countries through a jointly-managed Multilateral Fund. 

I've argued for using the Montreal Protocol to curb HFCs because CO2 "sucks all the oxygen from the room" in the climate treaty talks, and the Montreal treaty has the time and expertise for this assignment.  We could simplify the agenda of the climate talks, and success in Egypt in November could create a lift of goodwill that might help make progress a month later when the nations convene in Copenhagen.  

Hats off to the three amigos!