Even as the fate of HFCs hangs in uncertainty, there remains much at stake for the Montreal Protocol
Of late, there has been increased political momentum to shift the HFC discussions from United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to the Montreal Protocol. Earlier in the year, US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama addressed the public on this issue. Recently, the G-20 summit at St Petersburg endorsed the view that Montreal Protocol should discuss hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), while the accounting and reporting of the greenhouse gases should be under the UNFCCC. The G-20s’ is a significant decision and the issue is likely to see a heated discussion in the forthcoming Montreal and Climate talks, scheduled in Bangkok and Warsaw respectively. Depending on a decision, the UNFCCC may formally ask the Montreal Protocol to take up the issue of HFCs, and the Montreal Protocol may form a contact group to discuss the HFC phase down schedule. Discussions could go either way. Or, it could be status quo.
For the followers of global negotiations on environmental issues though, the predicament we are in, with respect to HFCs, is not new. The issue is marred by the huge trust deficit between industrialised and developing countries. There are legitimate reasons for this distrust.
Most environmental negotiations are economic negotiations, but in Montreal Protocol it has taken a whole new dimension. The protocol has definitely played a critical role in reducing ozone-depleting substances. But it is also a fact that the interests of a handful of companies, both in developed and developing world, have shaped the contours of this protocol. Thus, before deciding the future of HFCs, it is important to reflect on the following.
HFCs is still UNFCCC’s baby
The US-led effort to bring HFC phase-out, or ‘phase down’ if you will, to Montreal Protocol, without referring it to UNFCCC is shortsighted. It does not recognise that HFCs are currently covered under UNFCCC and not Montreal Protocol. While these two conventions have previously discussed the issue of HFCs, there is no formal decision yet to allow Montreal Protocol to take over. When aviation and maritime-related emissions were moved to the International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation, all UNFCCC parties had agreed to it. Similarly, moving HFCs to the Montreal Protocol will have to be agreed to by all parties under UNFCCC. This will give confidence to developing countries that the principle of common but differentiated responsibility is secured.
Why only HFCs?
HFCs are part of the larger family of fluorinated gases, called F-gases that cause global warming. F-gases include HFCs, perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). They all are potent greenhouse gases, and are under the Kyoto Protocol’s basket of gases. Similar to HFCs, some of them are also replacements for ozone-depleting substances. Compared to the global warming potential (GWP) of HFCs, which ranges from 140-11,700, the GWP of PFCs range from 6500-9200; for SF6 it is 3200 and NF3 has a GWP of 17200.
Like the air conditioner and refrigerator sectors are predicted to grow in future, NF3 used in electronics, including solar photovoltaic cells, is expected to grow significantly as well. An approach that addresses only HFCs and overlooks the other super greenhouse gases is a piecemeal solution and, therefore, the question is: whether Montreal Protocol will address all F-gases and how?
Politics of transition
From CFCs, the world moved to HCFCs. Then, from HCFCs to HFCs. And, now there is discussion on phasing-out HFCs with other alternatives. We have moved from one harmful chemical to the next. But why should we be surprised? This has been a game of making money by businesses from both developed and developing countries.
Developed country industry held patents for the harmful technology options and made money selling these chemicals as well as by transferring technologies to the developing countries. Developing country industry in turn earned money out of moving from CFCs to HCFCs. They also made huge money by destroying HFC-23, a super greenhouse gas produced as by-product of HCFC-22. This, they did under UNFCCC’s clean development mechanism by selling carbon credits. Now, the developed world has already moved to HFCs, and developing world is gradually moving to HFCs. The phase-out of HFCs is being discussed. And the issues of market, technology and patents are back on the table.
But the Montreal Protocol with its powerful leverage of trade—countries which do not agree and do not comply cannot sell products—is clearly the mechanism of choice. This time though, the choice has to be right. There are many trade-offs that need to be considered before technology options are finalised. Commercial interests driving the agenda cannot be the way ahead. All substances other than the unpatented hydrocarbons are in the hands of powerful companies. Developing countries are right in asking questions on issues of patents and technology payments before they make the transition. The way ahead cannot—and must not—make space to transition several times. It’s time for a one-time transition; we cannot allow the chemical treadmill to continue.
While the focus on HFCs is rightly so, it cannot be isolated in the larger energy efficiency scheme of things. It is clear that the gas itself is only one-tenth of the problem. In the life cycle of any refrigerator or air-conditioner direct emissions from refrigerants are small (5-20 per cent) compared to indirect emissions from the use of energy to run the device. So, if a choice has to be made between gases with moderate GWP substance and energy efficiency, it may be better to opt for the latter. But this is not good enough. The transition has to be towards super-efficient air-conditioners and refrigerators, which use climate-friendly gases.
Proposals: Not good enough
Industrialised countries need to fix their own backyard. The HFC phase-out schedule for the industrialised countries under the US and Micronesia proposal, or for that matter the proposed F-gas regulations of the EU, are just not sufficient. If developing countries are to leapfrog, then the rich world, already emitting HFCs, cannot keep using it for the next 20-25 years. Clearly, a much more strict phase-out schedule for the industrialised countries will have to be agreed to.
Primary focus must be on carbon dioxide
There is an aggressive push by the Northern countries to address Short-lived climate forcers (SLCF) like methane, black carbon and HFCs. Most of the actions on SLCF will happen in the developing world. While SLCF need to be addressed, it is quite clear that only taking action on SLCF will not solve the climate problem. Therefore, any action or debate on SLCF including HFCs should not take the focus away from steps that have to be urgently taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Developed countries cannot shift the burden of mitigation on developing countries. They must take aggressive actions to reduce emissions at home.
The way ahead
The world lost the opportunity 20 years ago, when it knew that ozone substitutes had huge implications for climate. But the business interests took over and the world did not look at the then nascent but viable hydrocarbon option, simply because they were cheaper and had no patent masters. This must not be repeated. Negotiations to phase out HFCs are going to be tough and challenging. After all, there are markets to be gained and lost and money to be made. But in all these, we must not forget the past mistakes and find answers that benefit people and the planet. Much is at stake for the world’s “most successful” environmental treaty.