Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Countries Inch Forward on Proposal to Limit HFCs

November 1, 2013

The road to a phaseout in the production and use of a rapidly growing and extremely powerful global warming pollutant proved bumpier than expected when diplomats gathered in Bangkok last week for the latest round of ozone treaty talks. For much of this year, momentum had been building behind a U.S.-backed amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which is the 1987 treaty that has protected the planet’s ozone layer from the ravages of ozone-depleting chemicals.

The amendment, sponsored by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, would phase out emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are compounds that contain carbon, hydrogen, and fluorine. HFCs are used as solvents, refrigerants, firefighting agents, and propellants, and were introduced as a substitute for the chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs, that have eroded the Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer — thereby allowing greater amounts of the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays to reach the Earth’s surface.

Despite high hopes going into the Bangkok talks, negotiators did not move the amendment toward formal considerations after developing countries, led by India, raised questions about the costs and availability of alternatives to HFCs and the viability of tackling global warming within a treaty system designed to handle a different environmental challenge.

India helped block formal discussions of the amendment, and negotiators instead agreed to have the treaty’s technical support team conduct a study of the costs and benefits of reducing HFC use, and hold a workshop on the issue in 2014.

During the past year, a growing number of countries had endorsed plans to reduce HFC emissions through the Montreal Protocol, including the G-20. In bilateral discussions with President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian President Manmohan Singh both expressed a willingness to move forward with HFC proposals.

Without cuts in HFC production and use, emissions are projected to skyrocket during the next several decades, mainly in the developing world. By 2050, total HFC usage in developing countries could be as much as 800 percent greater than in developed nations, a 2009 study found. Credit: NOAA.

Singh’s agreement with President Obama meant that his country’s opposition to the HFC amendment took many by surprise.

“In signaling their willingness to address HFCs in various high-level forums this year, global leaders have made an important statement of intent,” said Clare Perry, a senior campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K.-based environmental advocacy organization, in a press release.

“Unfortunately, there was scant evidence of this from India in Bangkok this week. We’re struggling to understand how a commitment by Prime Minister Singh barely a month ago has not translated into concrete action,” she said.

HFCs Seen As Part of Near-Term Solution

While HFCs are not as harmful to the ozone layer as the chemicals they are replacing, they are efficient global warming gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful at heating the planet than carbon dioxide, which is the main long-lived greenhouse gas. In fact, HFC-134a, which is the most popular HFC substitute and is used in vehicular air conditioning systems, has a global warming potential that is more than 1,400 times that of carbon dioxide, the main manmade global warming gas.

Because of their high global warming potential, reducing emissions of HFCs are viewed as a critical part of plans to reduce near-term global warming while negotiations continue within the U.N. to tackle carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases.

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