Momentum Growing for HFC Agreement as Vienna Talks Kick Off

The post co-authored with Bhaskar Deol

After eight years of heated deliberations, countries are finally coming close to an agreement to phase down the super-potent heat-trapping chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. Talks towards an HFC deal resume next week in Vienna, and expectations are rising.

HFC use is growing rapidly in air conditioning, refrigeration and other sectors, especially in rapidly growing developing nations. Pound for pound, the climate impact of HFCs is thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Replacing HFCs with climate-friendlier alternatives can help avoid 0.5˚C of global warming by the turn of the century.

Following 2015’s historic Paris Climate Agreement, an HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol will help countries meet and deepen their commitments to curb climate-changing pollution and would be another big win for the Montreal Protocol.

Through the Montreal Protocol, every nation on earth has eliminated the production and import of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). All nations will soon complete the phase-out of second set of ozone-depleters, called hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). New research confirms that the Antarctic ozone hole, first identified thirty years ago, is healing as a result of actions taken under this treaty. Phasing out CFCs and HCFCs has also delivered huge climate protection benefits, because these chemicals are also extremely powerful greenhouse gases.

HFCs were adopted as replacements for CFCs and HCFCs. HFCs don’t deplete ozone and pack a smaller heat-trapping punch than CFCs. But if HFC use continues growing, it will block our chances of meeting the Paris goal of holding global warming below a 2˚C increase. Now that better alternatives—both fluorocarbons and non-fluorocarbons—are available, it’s time to move on from HFCs. Developing countries can enlist the Protocol’s help to leapfrog to solutions that are better for the climate and for business.

Much progress has been made since the first HFC amendment proposals were tabled eight years ago. The European Union, the United States, Japan, Australia, the state of California, and other jurisdictions are implementing stringent HFC reduction policies. A suite of environmentally preferable alternatives are being developed by chemical companies, deployed by appliance manufacturers, and purchased by customers.

For example, HFO-1234yf—a refrigerant with less than 1/1000th the heat-trapping potency of the HFC it replaces—is already being used in millions of car air conditioners across the world. Consumers have purchased millions of room air conditioners that use viable, energy efficient alternative refrigerants such as HFC-32 or HC-290 (propane). Building chillers are being commercialized with energy efficient, lower-potency refrigerants such as HFO-1233zd, HFO-1234ze, and HC-290. Some sectors, such as insulating foams, are skipping HFCs and jumping directly to HFOs and hydrocarbons. As alternative chemicals and products reach maturity, their costs come down. The transition pathways for industries in both developed and developing countries are becoming clearer and better understood.

When the Montreal Protocol parties meet again in Vienna next week, they must build upon the progress and momentum generated last year in Dubai and this April in Geneva. They can use the 10-day Vienna meeting to start writing the details of the HFC phase-down agreement. If negotiators do their job, the long-sought treaty amendment can be signed when they meet next in Kigali, Rwanda this October. Here is what Parties need to achieve in Vienna this month:

  • In Geneva in April, negotiators largely resolved concerns about assuring workable alternatives for countries with the world’s highest temperatures, such as in the Middle East. They also started working out criteria for funding assistance for the technology transition in developing countries. In Vienna, parties need to move quickly to resolve concerns about access to patented technologies and the availability of financing.
  • As one concrete step towards closing the deal, the parties can task their Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) to further analyze transition costs, ahead of the Kigali meeting.
  • The parties also must come closer together on the dates for freezing and reducing HFC production and import, and on formulas for country baselines. An early freeze date is critical to avoid unnecessary HFC growth and to speed the transition to next-generation alternatives. Three of the amendment proposals include freeze dates in the early 2020s for developing countries, while India’s proposal, introduced a year ago, would postpone a freeze for more than a decade. There’s a growing consensus, however, that it would make little sense for countries like India to build up their air conditioning industries using outmoded chemicals and product designs, only to find themselves stuck in a technological backwater.
  • Developing countries need strong assurances, however, that developed countries will take the lead in cutting their own HFCs; that they will continue commercializing and making available safer alternatives; and that they will contribute sufficient resources to the Multilateral Fund to help developing country industries with the costs of transition. The U.S., the European Union, Japan, and other donor countries have pledged to contribute those added resources. Now it’s time to for countries to negotiate and firm up their mutual commitments to phase-down schedules and Multilateral Fund support. That’s the proven path to past agreements under the Montreal Protocol.

There are many signs that countries are ready to “do the deal” on HFCs this year. Commitments to adopt a Montreal Protocol HFC amendment this year are now a regular feature of G-7 and G-20 communiques, as well as many bilateral meetings. In June, for example, Indian Prime Minister Modi and U.S. President Obama pledged to work for a Montreal Protocol HFC amendment this year with “an ambitious phasedown schedule” for all countries and “increased financial support” to the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to help developing countries with implementation. The same day, the U.S. and China reaffirmed their joint commitment to completing an ambitious HFC deal this year, in a communique from the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

The Montreal Protocol is the world’s most successful environmental treaty, already doing double duty saving the ozone layer and curbing climate change. With global climate action needed now more than ever, sealing an HFC deal under the Montreal Protocol is the biggest thing that can be done this year to build on the Paris agreement and protect our children’s future. 

About the Authors

David Doniger

Director, Climate & Clean Air program

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