Vienna HFC Talks: Progress, High Expectations, & Work Ahead

The HFC talks in Vienna wound up early Sunday morning with strong progress toward a Montreal Protocol amendment to phase down these super potent climate pollutants, and high expectations that the deal will be sealed in Kigali, Rwanda, this October.    

Phasing down HFCs is the biggest climate protection step countries can take in the year after the Paris Climate Agreement.  Success in Kigali can help avoid 0.5˚C of global warming by the turn of the century. Avoiding that increase is critical to meeting the Paris goal of holding the global temperature rise below 2˚C.

Just before midnight Saturday night, countries came together on a compact table that captures the range of dates under consideration for the first key steps – freezing HFC growth in developing countries and beginning reductions in developed countries.  Critically, nearly 100 developing and developed countries – the African Group, Pacific Island countries, leading Latin American and Caribbean countries, the U.S., European Union, Japan, and other OECD countries – joined in calling for an ambitious early freeze on HFC growth in developing countries, in 2021.  An early freeze to cut off the rapid growth of HFCs is critical for climate protection.

Other Latin American and Asian countries would fix the freeze in 2025, and China and Pakistan propose 2025-2026.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States suggest 2028, and Iran 2029.  India stands alone seeking to continue HFC growth for another 15 years, with a freeze postponed to 2031.  

Developed countries would begin their reductions earlier, reducing by 10 percent by 2019.  They also tabled a simplified proposal for subsequent phase-down steps that replaces competing offerings from the North American countries and the European Union. 

There will be more negotiations ahead to clarify baselines, resolve these differences in the timing of the freeze, work out the phase-down steps to follow, and agree on financial support for developing country transition costs, provided through the Multilateral Fund (MLF).  But this is a big step forward that caps a week of enormous progress towards the final deal expected in Kigali. 

One week ago, countries kicked the talks into high gear by resolving a host of obstacles that had blocked progress for several years.  Countries got down to brass tacks on phase-down proposals, in negotiations through the week.  Ministers injected enthusiasm and ambition into the talks on Friday, which helped achieve Saturday night’s progress.  Parties will leave with condensed negotiating documents that frame the options for resolution between now and the final meeting Kigali in October.

While the vast majority of countries – from China (the largest HFC producer) to the smallest island nations – showed flexibility and willingness to advance the pace of action, India stuck to its original proposal, the least ambitious on the table, which would allow developing countries’ HFC production and use to grow sharply for 15 years, until a freeze kicks in 2031.    

This contrasts with Prime Minister Modi’s and President Obama’s upbeat joint communique in Washington in June, which called for “an ambitious phasedown schedule” for all countries and “increased financial support” through the MLF to help developing countries implement their transition to climate-friendlier alternatives. 

India and other emerging markets can meet the challenge of – indeed, benefit from – earlier action coupled with earlier financing.  Climate-friendly technology will diffuse rapidly, especially as key patents expire in the early 2020s.  India has little to fear and much to gain.

India may be waiting to compromise until the last minute in Kigali.  But by bargaining this way, India may lose leverage to shape creative solutions that allow it access to earlier action and earlier funding. 

Between now and Kigali, countries will work bilaterally and in other meetings, to bridge the gaps and reach the final deal.  All the major players are going to have to dig deeper to reach an ambitious agreement on phase-down schedules and funding. 

Expectations for success in Kigali still run high, however.  The message of the week is clear.  Even though they haven’t yet worked out all the issues and made their final compromises, nearly all countries clearly want to achieve an HFC phase-down agreement this year, and no country wants to stand out as the spoiler.

More to come.