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Montreal Protocol meeting ends; nations agree to study HFCs further

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Date:Oct 27, 2013

No decision taken on setting up contact group to formally discuss the refrigerant gases under the international treaty

Meeting of the contact group on alternatives to ozone-depleting substances (Photo courtesy  IISD reporting services)

There was no conclusive decision on discussing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used as coolant gas in refrigeration, as parties trudged to the finish of the 25th meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol at Bangkok (MOP 25) on October 25. Whether these gases should be discussed under the Montreal Protocol that addresses ozone-depleting gases, was a key agenda for discussion at the outset of the meeting. At present, HFCs are handled under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since they are greenhouse gases (GHGs) with high global warming potential. Their emissions are on the rise as they have started replacing ozone-depleting substances called hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are handled under the Montreal Protocol.

At the meet, a decision to gather more information and analyse the economic and technical viability of avoiding the phasing in of non-climate-friendly substances such as HFCs saved MOP25 from being a complete washout. Parties worked on extra time to agree to what should be the scope of the study that the technical body should carry out; they also agreed to an extra workshop that will take place before the next open-ended working group meeting next year to discuss HFCs. 

Throughout the week, decision on setting up a “contact group” to discuss how HFCs can be addressed under the Montreal Protocol eluded delegates who had gathered for the meeting. (For an official decision to emerge from the Protocol, an issue first needs to be formally discussed under a contact group.) Instead, the lesser formal discussion group that started work at the previous meeting continued to discuss the financial, technical and legal implications of moving a greenhouse gas such as HFC under the purview of the Montreal Protocol.  Several nations that were hoping to see some breakthrough on HFC discussions started pushing elements from within the discussion group into contact groups convened to discuss other issues. The agreement on the additional workshop was reached under one such contact group set up on the technical options committee meetings (TEAP) report on alternatives to ozone-depleting substances.  

India was keen to ensure at every level that a discussion explicitly on HFCs was avoided, forcing parties, instead, to resort to creative ways of addressing the issue without calling it that. According to the repeatedly stated position of A Duraiswamy from India, the reason for not engaging on the issue of HFCs was because it was a greenhouse gas and not an ozone-depleting substance, addressed under the Montreal Protocol. Every time the issue of HFCs came up, Duraiswamy reminded the floor that HFCs did not belong here.

Common concerns over costs of transition

But as parties from developing countries addressed their concerns about phasing down HFCs, parties’ common concerns about alternatives to HFCs became clear. India’s concerns about alternatives were not very different either. Countries with higher temperatures had concerns about how certain alternatives would behave when used in hotter conditions compared to the temperate conditions under which they are currently being used. A sector of particular concern was the air-conditioning sector where the alternatives such as hydrocarbons posed the risk of flammability whereas other alternatives such as hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) were made more expensive owing to patents. While some of these alternatives were already being put to use in developed countries, some parties seemed concerned that they may need to be adapted to conditions existing elsewhere which could turn out to be technically challenging or expensive. 

The China delegate went further and explained another concern was the lack of sufficient assurance from developed countries. According to her, “there has been a political statement to phase down production and consumption of HFCs but what is still missing is a strong commitment from developed countries on financial assistance.” She also said: “our industry might not be able to afford it. When you can find a solution for this, there should be a clear commitment on financial assistance for developing countries.”

Argentina also argued there was a lack of funds for the current phase out on HCFCs, which held clear concerns for a future phase down of HFCs wherein the alternatives were more expensive. India, after offering much resistance to discussing the issue of HFCs, said that the current mechanism only funds “incremental costs” and not the full cost of a transition which will need to be reformed under an amendment scenario.

The EU delegate reminded the room that what was really needed was political will to move the process forward; that all the other issues could be addressed if the political will was there. 

For a week-long meeting that failed to live up to expectations, a decision to study the technical and economic aspects further and agree to yet another workshop may not have been the most promising but still a baby step in the direction of more informed and, hopefully, constructive engagement on addressing the harmful gases.

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