High pitch for Montreal
It’s a war on many fronts—science, trade and politics
On September 6, 2013, at the G20 Summit in St Petersburg in Russia, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the deal they had struck on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in June in the US. Under the deal, the two countries would use the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, while the accounting and reporting of HFCs emissions would continue to be under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The other G20 leaders are said to have concurred. This is a big victory for the US, as India and China had been against discussing HFCs phase-out under the Montreal Protocol for the last four years.
So why is the US so interested in HFC when it has been a regular spoilsport in global climate negotiations and has failed to take any meaningful action on climate change domestically?
HFCs are a part of pollutants called short-lived climate forcers (SLCFs), which warm the climate but have a relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere. Other major SLCFs include methane from oil and gas wells, rice cultivation and enteric fermentation in animals, black carbon (or soot) emitted from diesel vehicles and burning of biomass.
Reducing emissions of SLCFs, which have a shorter lifetime than CO2 will show rapid results. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for more than a century. United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization have projected that reducing SLCFs, especially methane and black carbon, can slow down warming expected by 2050 by as much as 0.5°C. Regulating HFCs, they estimate, can prevent an additional 0.05°C to 0.1°C by 2050.
The US civil society has convinced its government that fast action on SLCFs will give the world time to get an international climate deal. It will also give breathing space to the US, which in any global climate deal will have to take maximum emissions cuts.
Most of the action to reduce SLCFs has to be taken in developing countries. Countries like India have not yet moved entirely to HFCs, so the urgency is to ensure that they do not shift to this substance. The US is not so vocal about its plans to fast-track reduction of HFCs in its domestic industry. But it wants to shift the agenda to Montreal Protocol, which it believes will get quick results.
|WHY TAKE UP ONLY HFCS?
The fluorinated gas (F-gas) basket comprises HFCs, perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexachloride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).
PFC is produced as a byproduct of various industrial processes associated with aluminum production and manufacturing of semiconductors. SF6 is used in magnesium processing and semiconductor manufacturing, and in electrical transmission equipment. Use of NF3 is booming for products from computer chips and flat-screen LCDs to thin-film solar photovoltaics.
Emissions of SF6 and PFCs do not seem significant when compared to other greenhouse gases, but they have considerably long lifetimes in the atmosphere combined with high GWP.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) estimates the total SF6 emissions from production, use and disposal of electrical equipment at 27 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MTCO2e) in 2000 growing to 66 MTCO2e in 2020, if no mitigation actions are taken. PFC emissions from semiconductor manufacturing were 30 MTCO2e in 2000. USEPA expects significant growth in this sector unless the World Semiconductor Council’s commitment to reduce PFC emissions by at least 10 per cent from 1995 levels is implemented and strengthened.
NF3 has 17,200 times the warming potential of CO2 and is rapidly increasing in the atmosphere. According to a study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, emissions of NF3 in 2010 accounted for between 17 per cent and 36 per cent of emissions of the most widely used and emitted fluorinated compounds from the semi-conductor industry, up from between 13 per cent and 28 per cent in 2005. The recent emissions of NF3 are almost entirely from production and end use in semi-conductor manufacturing and are larger than those of the other fluorinated compounds from semi-conductor manufacturing. Thus, if NF3 production rates follow demand for production of semi-conductor devices, emissions are likely to rise significantly in the near future.
The question that arises is: why HFC alone should be picked up and tackled under the Montreal Protocol?
Montreal Protocol or UNFCCC?
In 2009, the US and Micronesia submitted proposals to amend the Montreal Protocol to include phase down and phase out of HFCs. They argued that Montreal Protocol should address HFCs because its use had increased due to the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) phase-out pushed by the Protocol. Developing countries argued that HFC is not an ozone-depleting substance (ODS), rather, it is among the six greenhouse gases under Kyoto Protocol, so the climate convention, UNFCCC, should deal with it. They quote Article 4.1 of UNFCCC which states that all greenhouse gases other than those under the Montreal Protocol should be addressed by UNFCCC.
The US and its allies counter this by quoting from Article 2.1 of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, under which the Montreal Protocol is placed. It states that countries are obliged to take action to prevent any adverse impact of the activities taken to protect the ozone layer, thereby justifying Montreal Protocol as the right platform to tackle HFCs. Arguments of both sides have changed little since.
Civil society in the US and the EU says the Montreal Protocol has the institutional capacity and the Multilateral Fund to pay for transition in developing countries. They also cite the track record of action under Montreal as evidence of a global agreement that can deliver fast results.
But there are many unanswered questions about this US-led campaign for HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. What is the best technology for developing countries to move to? The new technologies are still untested. Who will pay for the transition if the costs are high? The Montreal Protocol is low on funds even to phase out HCFCs. Developing countries say they want more clarity before they agree to allow HFCs to be discussed under Montreal.
What also goes against UNFCCC is that it is not designed for a phase down or phase out mechanism, and HFCs need to be urgently tackled owing to their growth potential in the developing economies. The counter argument is that HFCs are not the only fluorinated gas (F-gas) in the UNFCCC basket that need to be phased out. Choosing only HFCs does not address the problem F-gases are likely to cause in the future (see ‘Why take up only HFCs?’).
It is clear why the rich country industry wants HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. Under UNFCCC, HFCs can only be addressed under a market mechanism like Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This means that to earn more carbon credits, a country will move to least global warming potential (GWP) gases such as hydrocarbons than even relatively low GWP HFCs. Many refrigerants, for which these companies hold patents, will lose out.
Montreal Protocol, on the other hand, is a regulatory process that gives flexibility to sell gases, and even those with a higher GWP may make it through the net. The agreement works to create a mandated market for certain alternative technologies, which are then paid for by the Multilateral Fund.
The European Union is replacing its old regulation on fluorinated gas by early 2014. The new regulation has scope for all fluorinated gases—SF6, perflurocarbons (PFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). It has phase down targets for HFCs—to be reduced to 21 per cent of the baseline (2008-2011) by 2030. But there are areas of disagreement. The new regulation bans pre-charging of air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment. This would guarantee installation by only certified professionals allowed to take delivery of fluorinated gases. Some new F-gas equipment and products will not be allowed and high-GWP HFCs will not be allowed for servicing of equipment. The regulation also proposes the producer’s responsibility in ensuring that emissions do not occur.
The country has a fluorocarbon recovery and destruction law of 2002. An amendment bill was passed recently, which is likely to come into place by 2015. The existing law covers only recovery and destruction of fluorocarbons. This has led to rapid consumption of HFCs, 80 per cent of which are in air-conditioners. The recovery rate is fairly low. The new amendment will have phase down schedules for HFCs and for reclaiming used gas. After a certain point, manufacturers and importers will be required to introduce new non-F-gas or low-GWP F-gas equipment. For refilling and recovery of F-gases, fillers and recovery operators will have to be registered with local government agencies and trained. F-gas recovered can be destroyed or recycled only by a government-approved agency.
California is reducing HFCs in mobile air-conditioning systems through Low Emissions Vehicle regulation, which requires all passenger cars, light duty trucks and medium-duty passenger vehicles to use refrigerants with a global warming potential less than or equal to 150 starting 2017. In the US, the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) makes decisions on a particular substitute in a particular end use within a larger sector. Substitutes are reviewed on the basis of ozone depletion potential, global warming potential, toxicity, inflammability and exposure potential as described in the final SNAP rule. US non-profits argue that if alternatives exist, old technology should be banned. Through this, they should get rid of HFCs. But the fact is that the US has no target or regulations for reducing HFCs.
The sellers have an interest in this system. It also has teeth—countries are banned from importing controlled substances from non-parties. So, it works for technology-sellers to get access to markets across the world. Also, today’s first movers, technology sellers with some products, can get advantage in this game.
Developing country industry is no different. It is also looking for short-term motive and would prefer to keep negotiations under Montreal to phase out HCFCs, and under UNFCCC to phase out HFCs. They have tasted blood and see the advantages of getting payment under one convention and credits to phase out the same product under another convention. They want it all.
How much will HFC really grow?
The question how much greenhouse gas emission would the world avoid if it tackles HFC transition depends on projections of rapid growth of refrigerators and air-conditioners in the developing world using HFCs. The 2009 study done jointly by The Netherlands, US agencies and DuPont shows that by 2050 the total HFCs emissions will be 5.5-8.8 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. In business as usual scenario, this is equivalent to 7-19 per cent of CO2 emissions in 2050. However, there are studies that project much lower HFC emissions. A 2011 study by German agencies projects that by 2050 the total emissions of HFCs will not exceed 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.
The difference is largely because nobody knows the growth rate and penetration of air-conditioners and refrigerators in the developing world. Also, it is assumed that there will be no technology development in developing countries to move out of HFCs. So, the US government’s emphasis on HFCs seems lopsided. HFC emissions currently account for less than 1 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Industrialised countries are responsible for this (see ‘HFC emissions on the rise’).
In fact, it can be argued that improving the efficiency of air-conditioners and even reducing the numbers, through green building technologies, would bring much bigger benefits to climate change. Refrigerators and air- conditioners emit CO2 indirectly by using electricity largely produced from fossil fuels. In the entire life cycle of these products, one has to look at the contribution of direct emissions of HFCs vis-à-vis indirect emissions due to electricity use. A highly energy-inefficient equipment using a least GWP refrigerant will have more life cycle emissions than a highly energy-efficient equipment using high GWP refrigerant. It has been found in many life cycle climate performance assessments that the refrigerant comprises 5 per cent to 20 per cent in the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of a product.
Some industrialised countries are moving to enact legislation to phase out HFCs (see ‘Regulating F-gases’). The politics is now out in the open and developing countries need to make careful choices that will be best for industry and the planet.