The 25th anniversary meeting of the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that has saved the ozone layer and slowed the pace of climate change, winds up today in Geneva with small signs of progress on proposals to phase down the “super greenhouse gases” known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
As I’ve explained here, production of HFCs is growing rapidly as they replace the ozone-destroying chemicals – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HCFCs). Getting rid of CFCs and HCFCs is delivering a huge side benefit for the climate, because they are also powerful heat-trapping pollutants. But rapid HFC growth, especially in rapidly developing countries with rising incomes and booming demand for air conditioning, is eroding that climate benefit. Scientists project that HFCs will add the equivalent of nearly 100 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere over the next four decades, drastically worsening climate change, unless steps are taken to curb that growth.
To nip this problem in the bud, the North American countries – Canada, Mexico, and the United States – and Micronesia have proposed amendments to the Montreal treaty to gradually phase down HFC production and consumption over the next two decades.
Those proposals got a boost in June when world leaders agreed in the Rio+20 summit statement (para 222) “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” and stated: “We support a gradual phase-down in the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons.” This certainly looks like a high-level mandate for taking action under the Montreal Protocol. But as I’ve reported here, there was little progress when the treaty parties convened in Bangkok a month later.
As they wrap up their meeting this week in Geneva, the parties are still far from agreement on HFCs, but they did agree to the first steps in the direction of actual negotiations. The list of countries that want to move forward has grown to more than 110 nations, both developed and developing. And while India, China, and Brazil continue to oppose HFC limitations, the ranks of their supporters are shrinking. New voices – notably South Africa – urged forward movement.
First, I’ll comment on the procedural progress, and then the substance. In complex international negotiations, signs of progress are often seen in arcane procedural steps. Previously, the proposed HFC amendments had been debated only in the full plenary meeting, and India and China, joined by Brazil, had refused to permit the formation of any subgroup to discuss possible treaty amendments. This is an important obstacle, because forming a subgroup (usually called a “contact group”) is a prerequisite to actually negotiating treaty amendments. This time, India and China allowed a “discussion group” – a small but significant step, because it is possible that those discussions may mature into active negotiations over the coming year.
Countries vigorously debated the merits in both the plenary and the discussion group. The majority expressed support for moving forward on the HFC amendments. They reiterated that HFC growth is a result of the phase-out of CFCs and HCFCs, that the Montreal treaty obligates the parties to ensure that replacement chemicals do not harm the climate, and that many alternatives to HFCs were available or under development. India, China, Brazil, and some others continued to argue that HFCs can be addressed only under the climate treaties, and to suggest that we lack adequate alternatives.
South Africa’s views were especially noteworthy. In the climate talks, South Africa is ordinarily aligned with China, India, and Brazil. Last summer, South Africa joined them in opposing the HFC proposals. But this week South Africa took a different tack. Echoing the Rio+20 conclusions, the South African delegate stressed that the Montreal Protocol is a proven vehicle with the institutions and financial mechanism to support phasing down production and consumption of intentionally-manufactured chemicals. He asked if it was necessary to reinvent the wheel under the climate treaties, which don’t address production and consumption. He also noted that new climate treaty commitments would likely not take effect until 2020, and that we could use the Montreal treaty to make earlier progress on HFCs. The issue was one of political will, he said, rather than a legal issue. Though he listed many questions that need to be resolved, he urged the parties to explore the options for progress on HFCs under this treaty.
Another small step forward was agreement to ask the treaty’s technical advisors, the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel, to prepare a report on currently available and developing alternatives, characterizing their availability, cost, environmental characteristics, and suitability for use in special circumstances, such as especially hot climates. This kind of technical assessment is invaluable in building confidence on the pace of phase-down measures that are achievable.
In a side event, the European Union presented its proposed program to phase down HFCs within Europe. The regulations were proposed last week in Brussels. The U.S. is considering petitions for additional domestic measures as well.
I won’t exaggerate the progress made in Geneva. India and China, joined by Brazil, continued to oppose the HFC proposals. They also blocked several helpful but small-scale steps, including a decision to gather useful data on ways to curb emissions of HFC-23, an extremely potent heat-trapping byproduct of producing HCFC-22, and another to collect information on policies countries are following to transition away from ozone-depleting chemicals.
The U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Micronesia deserve great credit for persevering with their important proposals to phase down HFCs in order to protect the climate and to preserve the gains already delivered by the ozone protection treaty. They are on the right side, they are gaining support, and they should stick with it.