Advancing toward phasing down HFCs

International negotiators made significant progress last week in Geneva at the first of several meetings this year aimed at phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) through an amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

HFCs are fast growing, powerful greenhouse gases used as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances in refrigeration and air conditioning, as blowing agents, and as aerosol propellants.

In a stark departure from meetings in previous years, a number of key issues essential to reaching agreement on an HFC amendment were tentatively resolved and substantial progress was achieved on others.

For example, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states had raised concerns about the lack of proven substitutes for air conditioning that are suitable for the extreme heat experienced in their countries. A proposal to allow a time-limited and geographically targeted exemption until substitutes have been demonstrated was proposed and tentatively agreed to at the meeting. (See our brief on how to structure an exemption.)

Another issue raised in the past by a number of parties concerns the potential conflict between actions on HFCs taken under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and any HFC amendment under the Montreal Protocol. In Geneva, there was broad agreement that the treaties were independent of each other, that they could be implemented in a way that would be complementary, and that an HFC amendment would not in any way require a prior authorizing act by the climate treaty.

A good deal of time was spent discussing issues related to funding associated with HFC controls in developing countries. While agreement exists that the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund would continue to be the primary vehicle for providing financial support for emission reduction projects, issues concerning guidelines detailing what projects would be funded were left unresolved. Among these issues is payment for licensing of intellectual property rights for patent-protected technologies to produce and use some of the substitute chemicals. (See our brief: Ten Myths About Intellectual Property Rights and the Montreal Protocol.)

Other key aspects of an HFC amendment that remain to be discussed include setting baseline levels, and targets and reduction steps.

To further advance negotiations, parties agreed to hold an intersessional meeting prior to the next scheduled meeting in July and authorized the Ozone Secretariat to prepare a consolidated text pulling together the four amendment proposals submitted by parties.

Last week’s promising meeting comes on the heels of a number of recent positive developments that demonstrate the feasibility of moving away from HFCs. In India, two leading chemical companies recently announced plans to begin producing one of the key HFC substitutes. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced proposed rules limiting the use of HFCs in a number of sectors.

Global efforts to control HFCs are a key building block to meeting the aspirational goal in the Paris Agreement of trying to limit global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Agreement this year on an HFC amendment would be an important accomplishment by the international community toward that objective.