Countries eye HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol

11 November 2015

Parties to the Montreal Protocol put an end to years of arduous debate during a meet held from 1-5 November in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by agreeing to a “Dubai Pathway” for negotiations on an amendment to phase down global climate-warming hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions.

“After seven years of efforts, we have at last agreed to amend the Montreal Protocol next year to phase down HFCs,” Jeem Lippwe, a negotiator for Micronesia, told reporters on the conclusion of the talks.

During the gathering, formally dubbed the 27th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (MOP27), countries adopted a number of other substantive and procedural decisions. However, HFCs remained the “major topic” of concern for parties throughout the week, according to media reports.

Challenges first, amendment to follow

A decision for parties to work towards an HFC amendment under the Montreal Protocol was agreed in the very early morning hours following the last day of negotiations, as countries worked to overcome some of the mistrust built up over the years between developed and developing nations around other phase-out programmes mandated by the pact.

The adopted decision states that parties will begin to work within the Montreal Protocol towards an HFC amendment in 2016 through a series of additional meetings. Ahead of the gathering, some countries were calling for more substantive details, a motion opposed by India and a handful of other Gulf States.

The Dubai decision also records a series of challenges around HFC phase out discussed during MOP27, alongside other relevant areas that will need to be addressed to secure a successful outcome.

According to Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), talks on HFCs initially became bogged down in Dubai with some countries exhaustively airing issues already experienced under the Protocol. However, this dynamic appeared to shift as the week went on, with the decision agreeing to generate solutions to these challenges as a critical part of the work on the eventual amendment.

Key areas that will be further explored next year include, among others, additional financing for HFC management if obligations are agreed to; flexibility for developing countries to phase out HFCs based on “their specific needs and national circumstances;” fair treatment of companies that have already converted to HFCs in order to meet the Montreal Protocol’s other aims; capacity building support for finding alternatives to HFCs in servicing, manufacturing, and production sectors; and technology transfer.

One of the added meetings in 2016 will be an “extraordinary” MOP, a significant signal of countries’ ambition to reach an HFC amendment agreement as only two previous extraordinary meetings have been initiated since the Protocol was adopted nearly 30 years ago.

Furthermore, countries agreed that all discussions on the amendment would be structured within a newly formed “contact group.” This much-anticipated contact group is mandated to manage the feasibility and structure of the global HFC phase-down under the Protocol.

Action under Montreal

The Montreal Protocol is widely accepted in the international community to be one of the most successful treaties of its kind, having achieved its main objective of helping repair a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic by reducing the production and consumption of global ozone-depleting substances (ODSs). Ozone absorbs ultraviolet radiation and overexposure can lead to chronic health impacts.

Since entering into force in 1989 the Protocol has adopted four amendments to cover some 96 ODSs, including chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs), some of the main chemicals used as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioners. It is nevertheless widely accepted that an increased use of HFCs has resulted from the phasing out of HCFCs, as the former appeared to provide a suitable substitute.

Given that HFCs are a potent short-lived greenhouse gas (GHGs) rather than an ODS, they therefore do not directly affect the ozone layer, but instead have an atmospheric warming potential up to 10,000 times greater than carbon dioxide.

Throughout much of the world, HFCs are the fastest-growing climate-warming gases, increasing at a rate of approximately 10-15 percent per year, according to recent reports, which argue that this rise of HFC emissions poses a substantial threat to countries’ efforts to tackle climate change.

“Hydrofluorocarbons may not cause direct ozone damage, like the chlorofluorocarbons they replace, but many of them contribute to greenhouse emissions,” said UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner in a press release after the MOP27.

“[But] if we don’t get this genie back into the bottle quickly then, by 2050, we could be looking at as big a problem as the one we have just solved.”

Countries have nevertheless disagreed over which platform to use to facilitate international cooperation on this particular threat posed to the global commons. Some players had argued that as a climate-warming gas, HFCs should be addressed under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, while others think it is appropriate to act under the Montreal Protocol given that HFC uptake may have been spurred on by its strictures.

The establishment of a contact group under the Montreal Protocol for the management of HFCs was nevertheless hailed by many observers as a good step toward tackling the challenge, after parties had repeatedly failed to agree on the issue both last year and in July. (See BioRes, 12 November 2014 and 31 July 2015)

Agreement on the newly-minted contact group was reached during a 29-30 October party working session held immediately preceding the MOP27.

Broad consensus, details needed

While the Dubai pathway outlines a general consensus on a number of critical issues that need resolution, the lack of detail in the draft decision has left some observers concerned about the pace of future talks.

Four HFC amendment proposals have already been tabled in the last year and the contact group will likely need to find a way to bring these various positions toward consensus.

The current proposals represent over 40 nations, with one from a coalition of North American countries, another from India, a third from the 28 member states of the European Union, and the fourth put forward by several island nations. 

While all of the proposed amendments address in some way most of the issues targeted in the Dubai decision, they differ significantly with regard to the starting year for HFC phase out, the level of ambition between developed and developing countries, and funding arrangements for implementation, among other factors.

For example, the more climate-vulnerable island nations are calling for the quickest phasedown, followed by the EU bloc, and then the North American option. India’s proposal does not require developing country compliance for HFC reductions until 2050. (See BioRes, 24 April 2015)

Exemption concession

The Dubai pathway also includes an element outlining the need for a possible exemption for high ambient temperature countries, a provision that has received mixed reviews from interested observers.

Some experts are viewing the inclusion of this possible exemption as a clear concession in order to reach consensus with countries like Pakistan, which have long advocated that available substitutes for HFCs do not properly address the unique challenges faced by countries located in warmer climates.

However, recent technical studies have found that the majority of the most potent HFCs can be replaced by existing substances with low or moderate global warming potential (GWP) without compromising efficiency, even under high temperatures.

While accepting the need for further discussion in this area, many developed countries reportedly called for additional clarity on what constitutes a “high ambient temperature country,” which sectors would be included, and the length of the proposed exemption.

Economic and climate benefits

Acting to reduce short-term climate pollutants such as HFCs in the near future would have a great benefit for the climate at low economic costs, according to a growing consensus among scientists, economists, and international organisations.

For example, a working paper published by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD) found that replacing HFCs with greener alternatives has low upfront costs and can improve energy efficiency by 10 to 50 percent or more.

In addition, the paper found that a swift phase out of HFCs by 2020 could prevent half a degree Celsius of warming by 2100, significantly contributing to the internationally agreed goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Nonetheless, some developing nations have said that they have already made heavy investments to shift away from CFCs and HCFCs, and caution that they cannot undertake further economic and technology transitions without assistance from the international community.

The potential adoption of an amendment to the Montreal Protocol for HFCs next year, meanwhile, served to lift the spirits of some climate observers ahead of a pivotal UNFCCC meet to craft a new climate regime set to kick off in just under three weeks in Paris, France.

“The progress in Dubai indicates that the world is ready for a new chapter in the fight against climate change. In agreeing to address HFCs together, we have laid the groundwork for even greater cooperation toward a successful outcome in Paris – and the entire planet will be better off for it,” said John Kerry, US Secretary of State, in a statement on the MOP outcome.

Outside of multilateral negotiations, several countries have already taken significant unilateral actions to regulate HFCs in collaboration with the private sector. For example, US President Barack Obama announced in October a sweeping number of commitments to reduce HFC emissions with more than a dozen companies, including Dow Chemical, Target, and Coca-Cola.

ICTSD reporting; “HFC phase-out in sight as 2016 deadline set,” CLIMATE CHANGE NEWS, 11 November 2015; “Countries near deal to phase out super warming HFCs,” CLIMATE CHANGE NEWS, 3 November 2015, “Resumed OEWG 36 Highlights: 29-30 October 2015,” IISD REPORTING SERVICES, 1 November 2015; “Summary of the 27th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol: 1-5 November 2015,” IISD REPORTING SERVICES, 8 November 2015.

 

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