Slow progress on limiting HFCs

Those encouraged by the recent high-level pronouncements by President Obama and China’s President Xi at the G-20 favoring action to reduce hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol came away from the 25th Meeting of the Parties last week in Bangkok disappointed.

A number of developing countries led by India blocked efforts to establish a formal “contact group,” an important step toward negotiating an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs, which are highly potent greenhouse gases.

Instead, the parties opted to continue exploring the issue in a less formal “discussion” group. They also asked their Technical and Economic Advisory Panel (TEAP) to prepare a report on the technical, legal, and financial management of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, and agreed to hold a workshop on HFCs in the margins of the next negotiating session in 2014.

HFCs now represent less than 1 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, but their use in refrigeration and other applications as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances (CFCs and HCFCs) is rapidly growing worldwide.

The substantive issues raised in the discussion group ranged from threshold legal issues concerning the authority of the Montreal Protocol to address non-ozone-depleting substances such as HFCs, to the relative roles and relationships between the Protocol and the UN Framework on Climate Change. Concerns by developing countries focused on the availability and cost of alternatives to HFCs, particularly critical at a time when many are struggling to phase out HCFCs.

The steps in Bangkok will help address important technical issues about the availability and cost of alternatives to HFCs, and in doing so, build the confidence required for action. Additional efforts are clearly required at the political level to build further support for phasing down HFCs. The remaining critical piece to reaching agreement will be commitments that adequate funds will be made available under the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund to support developing countries’ efforts to limit HFC use.

While it will take more time for these pieces to come together internationally, the U.S. and European Union can advance this process by acting domestically now to begin the shift away from HFCs where alternatives exist. By doing, so, they will be demonstrating the viability of these alternatives while bringing down costs through their expanded use in the marketplace. It is critical that the Environmental Protection Agency move forward aggressively to implement the mandate in the President’s Climate Action Plan to use the Clean Air Act to begin limiting HFCs where acceptable alternatives exist.