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Broad Coalition Pledges to Cut “Super Greenhouse Gases”


WASHINGTON, Sep 4 2013 (IPS) - An international coalition has agreed to begin working towards domestic regulation aimed at reducing the use of HFCs, compounds commonly used as refrigerants but referred to as “super greenhouse gases” for their particularly negative impact on global warming.

Environmental groups are lauding the decision, one of a suite of agreements struck Monday at a summit in Oslo by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), which includes 34 developed and developing countries and 38 organisations.

“This is a critical step in building confidence ahead of the big climate treaty negotiations in 2015." -- Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

The CCAC was created by former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton in early 2012 and today has expanded to include multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation.

“We will continue to promote climate-friendly alternatives and make efforts to reduce emissions of HFCs,” the CCAC communiqué, released Monday, pledges.

“CCAC Partner countries will adopt domestic approaches to encourage climate-friendly HFC alternative technologies and work toward a phasedown in the production and consumption of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. We will work with international standards organisations to revise their standards to include climate-friendly HFC alternatives.”

Indeed, analysts suggest the agreement could be particularly meaningful because the country representatives agreed to work towards the reduction under the framework of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. That 1987 agreement, one of the most ratified of all U.N. treaties, is widely seen as one of the most successful of global environment accords.

“Agreeing to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is the single biggest, fastest and most effective action we can take against climate change in the next several years,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, a Washington-based think tank, said Monday.

“Phasing down HFCs can avoid the equivalent of up to 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, and up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.”

Zaelke says the Montreal Protocol is the single biggest climate mitigation tool available to the world over the next few years, as a new international climate treaty remains under debate.

“The Montreal Protocol helped the world reduce the use of hundreds of similar chemicals over the past 25 years, and it knows how to do its job,” he told IPS from the sidelines of the CCAC discussions in Oslo.

“This is also a critical step in building confidence ahead of the big climate treaty negotiations in 2015. If they don’t build some interim momentum and success, there’s no way those talks will be successful.”

Gigatonne gap

The CCAC focuses on four pollutants with short atmospheric lives – HFCs, methane, so-called black carbon and what’s known as tropospheric ozone, a main constituent of smog. The group’s founding aim was to try to reduce some of these short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) ahead of when next international climate treaty is to come into being, in 2020.

“The idea here is the recognition that between now and 2020 there’s going to be an eight-to-10-gigatonne gap between the amount of emissions reductions pledged by countries and what scientists say is necessary to keep the world’s temperature rise below two degrees Celsius,” Mark Roberts, an international policy advisor with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a watchdog group, told IPS from Oslo.

“So addressing these shorter-lived substances could offer more time for the rest of the world to work on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In particular, as analysts have started talking about the best course of action between now and 2020 to get rid of that ‘gigatonne gap’, HFCs have risen to top of pile.”

Representatives will now be tasked with going home and figuring out regulatory or legislative fixes to various SLCP issues, including their level of HFC use. No targets have been set under the new agreement, but the overarching plan currently is to reduce HFC use by 80 percent, allowing the remainder to be used for military and certain other purposes.

While the CCAC has no specific oversight mechanisms, analysts expect countries to openly trumpet any new regulatory approaches, starting at the next meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in November in Warsaw.

Also on Monday the World Bank unveiled new plans to incorporate analysis of countries’ SLCP use into its development activities. A new report found that the Washington-based institution spent some 18 billion dollars on SLCP-related funding over the past half-decade, while the bank will announce a specific goal on the issue by next year.

International drumbeat

The CCAC agreement is the latest in a strengthening international response to phase out HFCs, the use of which has increased significantly in recent years. And with HFCs a key component in air conditioning, their use is expected to see a massive boost on the back of rising middle classes in emerging economies.

According to the CCAC, global HFC use increased by around 8 percent between 2004 and 2008. But without international action, these emissions are projected to “accelerate rapidly” – by some 20 times in coming decades, according to the U.S. government.

HFCs were initially introduced during the 1990s to replace other compounds, known as CFCs and HCFCs, known to be particularly damaging to the ozone layer. While the Montreal Protocol was able to massively reduce the use of these other compounds, scientists in recent years began to realise that HFCs, though not damaging to the ozone layer, were extremely potent greenhouse gases.

Some forms are thousands of times more detrimental than carbon dioxide.

“Current predictions are that if nothing is done on HFCs, by 2050 they would be up to around 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions – basically offsetting all commitments that countries have made to reduce carbon dioxide,” EIA’s Roberts says. “On the other hand, if we can cut off this use now, we can save 100 gigatonnes by 2050.”

More than 110 countries have now offered some form of support for HFC reductions, perhaps most notably the bilateral agreement struck in June between the United States and China, two of the largest HFC producers and users. In addition, recent statements by both the Group of 8 (G8) rich nations and the Group of 20 (G20), as well as the Arctic Council, have likewise backed HFC draw-downs.

At least two proposals, including one authored by the United States, Canada and Mexico, are now pending to officially amend the Montreal Protocol to cover a reduction in HFC use and production. Those motions are slated to be formally discussed by members in October.

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