Vienna HFC Update #1: Amendment Talks Go Into High Gear

This post co-authored with Alex Hillbrand

Talks in Vienna to limit the super-warming chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol kicked into high gear on Friday and Saturday.  The first phase of the nine-day negotiating session ended favorably in the wee hours of Sunday morning with agreement on key “challenges and solutions.” 

That agreement paves the way for countries to spend the week ahead coming to terms on the central issues:  ambitious schedules for freezing and phasing down HFC production and use in both developed and developing countries, and financial assistance to help developing countries achieve their phase-down commitments.   

The upbeat mood of the first two days, evident in the words and actions of nearly all parties, further raises expectations that this is the year for agreeing on an HFC amendment. 

The goal for the Vienna meeting is to get close enough to a complete agreement on phase-down schedules and financing provisions that countries can seal the deal on a final HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol when they meet in Kigali, Rwanda, in October.

The stakes are high.  Left unchecked, HFC production, use, and emissions are rising fast.  An treaty amendment this year could prevent, between now and 2050, HFC emissions with a warming power equal to nearly three times the world’s current annual output of carbon dioxide. This would be the biggest climate protection achievement of 2016 and help power the Paris Climate Agreement forward.

The Sunday-morning agreement addresses the main principles to govern financial assistance to help developing countries meet HFC phase-down commitments.  The parties agreed to continue using the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund (MLF) – the mechanism through which donor countries helped developing countries phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and many other ozone-destroying and climate-damaging chemicals – and to provide “sufficient additional financial resources” to help those countries meet new HFC commitments.  They agreed on a list of activities eligible for funding, and on a process for the MLF to adopt detailed guidelines. 

The Sunday-morning agreement reassures countries that the MLF will cover the costs of licensing patents where needed.  Patent issues have been a point of contention in past negotiations, although recent research presented at the meeting has helped cut this problem down to a resolvable size.   The agreement also asks the MLF to look at ways to support enhancing the energy efficiency of air conditioners and other equipment in tandem with adopting new refrigerants.

The agreement also opens the door for making certain exemptions available as the phase-down proceeds.  This is a tried-and-true mechanism for addressing the fear that alternatives won’t be ready for some uses when phase-down limits kick in.  The possibility of hard-case exemptions makes it acceptable for countries to agree up front to ambitious reduction schedules. 

Negotiators’ enthusiasm palpably increased with every “challenge” met and “solution” found. 

India and China are joining the U.S., Canada, Mexico, European Union and others in down-to-earth problem solving.  Even Saudi Arabia, in the past an obstacle, is contributing to progress. 

What’s next?  Negotiators will work all next week to develop the specific language of the HFC amendment, building from four existing proposals and the “solutions” adopted this weekend.  On Friday and Saturday, ministers from around the world will convene for a high-level “Meeting of the Parties.”  The U.S. will be represented by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as well as high-level White House and State Department officials.

The goal is to get as close as possible to a final deal, so that the ministers can close the remaining gaps this week and in the months ahead, and sign the long-awaited HFC phase-down amendment to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali this October.

We’ll provide further updates as the week’s talks proceed.