Meeting during the G-20, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed to establish a contact group under the Montreal Protocol on the potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — a significant step following the presidential agreement to work together on HFCs three months ago. The G-20 also announced it supported serious progress in the U.N. climate talks in addition to using the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs. This could mean serious momentum for quick action to cut greenhouse gases now.
Back in June, the U.S. and China first formally agreed to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol of 1987 to phase down the consumption and production of HFCs. This could eliminate 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (or two years’ worth) by 2050. John Podesta, Chair of the Center for American Progress and former White House chief of staff spoke about the importance of this next step:
Today, this initiative has become a reality, with the two leaders pushing to initiate the formal process of using the Montreal Protocol to achieve this end. Their first opportunity will come this October when the parties of the protocol convene in Bangkok. This is the same agreement that successfully phased out chlorofluorocarbons, saving the world from the threat of the hole in the ozone layer. It must now be used to eliminate HFCs, which, if left unabated, are projected to increase twenty-fold in the next three decades, comparable to the total current annual emissions from the global transportation sector.
HFCs are primarily used as refrigerants and can be found in any household with a refrigerator or air conditioner. Unlike their ozone-depleting predecessors in these applications, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), HFCs are completely innocuous when it comes to the ozone layer. They are, however, extremely potent greenhouse gases. The most commonly used HFC, HFC-134a is 1,430 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and other chemicals in this class are up to tens of thousands of times more potent. The phase out of ozone depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol of 1987 has been effective at removing the production and consumption of these substances. Kofi Annan, called the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date” in his 2009 Millennium Report as the Secretary General of the United Nations.
Yet the predominant substitutes for HCFCs and CFCs are HFCs. Given current demand in developing countries for refrigerators and other HFC containing technologies, if unchecked, HFC emissions are projected to grow to nearly 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Today, they account for just two percent.
The monumental announcement in June came after four years of work by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico on a proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol to slowly ratchet down HFC production globally and require reporting. Over 100 countries have signed declarations to address HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. World leaders agreed to support a phasedown in the consumption and production of HFCs at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012.
Now, leaders of the G-20 economies representing approximately 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions endorsed a phasedown of HFCs using the expertise of the Montreal Protocol. But there remains strong opposition to an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The main opponents have been India and Brazil. The next opportunity for these countries to join China in getting on board will be at the October meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol in Bangkok. This is where rhetoric could turn into reality.
Acting quickly to limit the production and consumption of HFCs, which unlike carbon dioxide that can remain in the atmosphere for 100 years, only has a lifetime of 15 years, could prevent half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century. This would be essential for keeping temperature increase at no more than 2 degree Celsius over pre-industrial average temperatures, which world leaders agreed to during international climate talks in 2009 at Cancun. Temperatures have already risen by 1 degree Celsius.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency ‘s Significant New Alternatives Policy or SNAP Program evaluates and regulates substances that can replace ozone-depleting chemicals and also provides guidance on acceptable substitutes for HFCs that have a lighter impact on the climate.
The Montreal Protocol also has the technical expertise to provide guidance on the viability, reliability and costs of alternatives. China’s real action on this issue today, along with new support from the G-20, will spur concrete action on the further development and use of HFC alternatives.
Rebecca Lefton is a Senior Policy Analyst specializing in international climate change at the Center for American Progress.