Montreal Protocol meet stalls on climate-warming chemicals

27 November 2014

Delegates from over 190 nations met in Paris, France in November to advance work on ozone-depleting substances. 

Efforts to establish a “contact group” to address ways to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – a potent greenhouse gas – failed to advance at a November meeting of the international instrument that deals with ozone-depleting substances (ODS). However, despite the HFC stalemate, the twenty-sixth gathering of the parties to the Montreal Protocol did see progress on issues relating to exemptions, financial support, and compliance reporting on the substances regulated by the instrument.

Sealed in 1987, the Montreal Protocol sought to phase out chemical substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were recognised as depleting the earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. Scientists warned such damage could have negative impacts on ocean ecosystems, agricultural productivity, and raise health risks such as cancers and weakened immune systems.

However, while the Protocol has successfully tackled some 96 ODS in the past 27 years, HFCs have since come to the fore as an alternative replacement. Although these do not directly damage the ozone layer, HFCs have warming potential over a thousand times greater than carbon dioxide. As a result, the last five annual meetings of the Montreal Protocol have seen some discussion among the parties on whether and how to counter this risk, without being able to resolve their disagreements on the best way forward. However, bilateral pledges between the US and China as well as India, over the last 18 months had served to boost hopes that the Paris meet might witness a breakthrough.

Best approach?

At the beginning of the meeting, French environment minister Ségolène Royal urged delegates to form a contact group to discuss ways to address hydrofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol. Among the issues up for consideration by the suggested contact group would be whether safe, economic, and environmentally-friendly HFC alternatives exist; ways to act on HFCs before viable alternatives are available for all sectors; possible exemptions; technology transfer; and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

An initial proposal on a contact group then put forward at the start of the meet by Canada, representing the North American position, was quickly shot down by some countries, which reiterated past arguments that HFCs as a greenhouse gas should be dealt with under the UN climate talks. Following a suggestion from the US, parties then agreed to convene an informal group to discuss a possible mandate for the contact group, with discussion taking place in this format on the last day. Later that day, the US introduced a new draft decision for a contact group on HFC management under the Protocol, building on the conversations from that day and during the week-long meet. The document suggested considering how to reduce HFCs, and establish synergies with the ongoing HFC reporting under the current climate regime, known as the Kyoto Protocol.

Although the proposal received a wide support, some opposition relating to process and substance remained and further consultations resulted in revisions to the US document, with a reference added to trade issues. Despite these amendments, parties were not able to reach consensus on the text, leaving it unclear how the Montreal Protocol will move forward with HFCs.

ICTSD reporting, IISD REPORTING SERVICES, RTCC

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