Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

India protests U.S.-led push to curb HFCs with Montreal Protocol

November 21, 2013

Lisa Friedman, E&E reporter

WARSAW, Poland — The Indian environment minister today threw cold water on U.S. efforts to curb heat-trapping gases used in air conditioners and refrigerators.

Speaking to ministers and diplomats gathered here for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said this body is the proper one to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), not the Montreal Protocol as the U.S. and more than 110 other countries contend.

“We are unable to fathom what prevents addressing this issue under this convention,” she said in a high-level speech. “The transfer of the mandate of phase-down of HFCs is simply not possible unless we have complete clarity on identified substitutes, costs, safety and economic feasibility. It will very adversely impact our people and our countries.”

The spotlight on HFCs during the annual climate talks is unusual. It’s brought about in large part, activists say, by the emphasis the U.S. has put over the past two years on efforts to reduce short-lived climate pollutants, also including methane and black carbon.

Earlier this year, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to phase down HFCs and signed a Group of 20 pledge to use the Montreal Protocol. India also signed that pledge, yet now, U.S. leaders say, the government is backing away from the agreement.

Where the work takes place to cut HFCs might seem like a technical difference. But the U.S. climate regime, unlike the Montreal Protocol, has long been married to a principle known as “common but differentiated responsibility” that over the years developing countries have interpreted to mean that rich countries act unilaterally while others act voluntarily and with financial compensation.

“HFCs are an issue which need to be discussed in great detail under the framework convention of the UNFCCC, because the Montreal Protocol deals with ozone-depleting substances and it does not provide for ‘common but differentiated responsibility,’ it does not provide for historical responsibility,” Natarajan said earlier this week.

In an interview, she said making the Montreal Protocol the body responsible for dealing with HFCs is a “red line” that India would not cross.

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, meanwhile, said countries — without directly naming India — should “not stand on ceremony.” He said the Montreal Protocol is the body with jurisdiction over HFCs.

“The Montreal Protocol has built-in differentiation,” he said, referring to a U.N. method of assigning responsibility to countries of different means. “It is not the same kind of differentiation like the UNFCCC, but it has got differentiation built in.”

An exasperated Stern added: “Let’s just get some results. Let’s do something that can be effective. Let’s stop talking.”

And European Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard noted that the reason countries went outside the U.N. climate regime to get work done on other substances was precisely “to move faster in some areas than this process is willing to do.”

She outlined a system in which countries would act on HFCs under the Montreal Protocol but account for it, and get credit for it, under the climate regime.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainability in Washington, D.C., which has long advocated global work on HFCs, said India, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Cuba are blocking a deal on the gases for different reasons.

“Not everybody wants to solve climate change. Not everybody wants to pull the problem apart and do the sensible pieces first,” he said specifically of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. India, he said, is among countries that think, “If the U.S. wants this, what can we get in exchange?”

“They see it as leverage, but when you’re leveraging a lifeboat that might not float, it’s not a very good lifeboat,” he said.

Zaelke called India “the bad guy now” on HFCs and called on other developing nations to put pressure on the country.

“If you can’t do HFCs under the Montreal Protocol,” he said, “you can’t do any climate multilateralism.”