International talks to deal with a particularly potent greenhouse gas took a cautious step forward on Wednesday, as India and a host of other countries agreed to “informal discussions.”
Under contention are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — gases that, pound for pound, can trap up to a thousand times more heat than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere. HFCs came into common use after the late 1980s, after an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol phased out the use of another gas, chlorofluorocarbons (CFS), which were causing the hole in the ozone layer to expand. HFCs, by contrast, could serve the same purpose as CFCs — in technologies like refrigeration, air-conditioning, and so forth — without damaging the ozone. But once HFCs’ contribution to global warming was discovered, international talks began to phase out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol as well.
India, China, and other developing countries had opposed the move, with some suggesting HFCs should be dealt with in ongoing talks under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
But at a meeting of 180 countries in Paris this week, India, China, and a number of other developing countries partially relented. According to the Hindu BusinessLine, the agreement sets up “informal discussions on mechanisms for ensuring a sustainable phase-out of HCFCs in Article 5 countries as well as all issues in relation to management of HFCs for all parties and how to address HFC management in 2015.” Article 5 countries “include mostly developing nations,” according to the outlet.
“India and China have both dramatically shifted their stance,” Kevin Fay, the executive director of a trade group that represents manufacturers products that use HFCs, told Bloomberg.
“Because those markets are growing so fast, if the HFCs aren’t nipped in the bud, they will undo all the positive effects of the Montreal Protocol by 2050,” added David Doniger, the head of climate programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
It wasn’t everything the United States and other developed nations had hoped for. But it opens the door to dealing with HFCs under the Montreal Protocol’s framework, which has tended to be much nimbler and faster-moving than the United Nations talks. Use of the original CFCs has been cut 98 percent since the treaty was signed in 1987. “All the sectors dealing with HFCs today were also the ones dealing with CFCs,” Avipsa Mahapatra, the International Climate Policy Analyst at the Environmental Investigation Agency, told the Hindu BusinessLine. “So, it makes sense for it to be dealt with under the Montreal Protocol, which already has the institutions and mechanisms for phasing out HFCs.”
Many observers attributed the change to efforts by the Obama Administration, which has been carrying out shuttle diplomacy between India and China on the question of HFCs for some time.
“This is the only climate strategy where all the major countries of the world are lining up on the same side,” added Durwood Zaelke, the President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, who was present at the Paris negotiations this week.
Much remains to be worked out, however. Technologies like refrigeration and air conditioning are critical tools in bringing the populations of developing countries out of poverty, so workable replacements that don’t employ HFCs will need to be widely available.
Prakash Javadekar, the environmental minister for India — the country that lead the previous opposition — laid out the issues that would have to be addressed to reach a final agreement. These include the way patents, intellectual property law, and other confidentiality agreements prevent India and other developed countries from making full use of new technology, as well as the fact that developed countries like the United States are historically responsible for the vast majority of HFC emissions. The talks, according to Javadekar, would need to be based “on the principle of grace period — that is differentiated responsibility, financial assistance, including that for research and development, technology transfer without the clause of confidentiality.”