Climate of change in Bangkok

Breakthrough in negotiations on phasing down ozone-depleting HFCs

By Aditi Sawant
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

35th Meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group in Bangkok on Friday, April 24, 2015 (Photo:  IISD)

It often becomes difficult to reach a consensus on climate change on an international platform where 198 countries are present and each has its own interest in mind.

But a breakthrough was achieved in Bangkok where the 35th Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol was held last week. The Montreal Protocol, designed to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances and protect the fragile ozone layer, showed how international action can be effective in mitigating climate change globally. 

The game changers

There was a change in the stand taken by India, which in the past vehemently opposing the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) amendment or even the formation of a ‘formal contact group’ to discuss HFC phase-out (see ‘No consensus among countries at Montreal Protocol).

HFCs were introduced as substitutes for ozone depleting substances that are dealt under Montreal Protocol. However, despite their ozone-friendly characteristics, they are highly potent greenhouse gases (GHGs). Thus Montreal Protocol has proposed to phase-out HFCs by moving to low global warming potential (GWP) alternatives in the current phase-out of ozone depleting refrigerants. However, there have been some concerns by a few countries over heavy price tag of the transition away from HFCs and the fact that HFCs are already included in the UNFCCC mechanism that aims to reduce GHG emissions.

This time, however, India presented an amendment proposal on its own. Things became even more interesting when at the start of the week-long discussions, there were talks about some African countries presenting a ‘conference-room paper’ (CRP) on HFC amendment. The CRP was presented in the middle of the week for consideration of the parties.

Moving towards a consensus

The Montreal Protocol negotiators must get a lot of credit. At the start of the three-day Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) session, there was a firm opposition to the HFC amendment proposal from reaching the discussion table. But this was gradually overcome.

The Gulf countries, along with a few others, led the opposition on HFC amendment, citing lack of technology and funds shortage.

Availability of technology is different for different countries. Countries having high-ambient temperatures can have a technology that cannot be used elsewhere. This gives rise to added costs, and hence, technology usage has to be optimised for this region, some experts opined.

On the second day of the OEWG session, some of the countries started a vociferous discussion about their refusal to form a contact group. But the EU nations and the US pushed for an informal discussion. Ultimately, some of the members relented and an informal talk was initiated towards the end of the second day. But far from a meaningful outcome, this became the reiteration of all that was discussed earlier.

On the last day of the OEWG session, the countries once again entered into an informal discussion. Saudi Arabia said what it needed most was time to absorb technology and flexibility for itself and other Gulf countries as well.

The Indian delegation made a long statement on the need for consensus. Pakistan said it needed studies and information on alternatives, especially on the effect of HFCs on aquatic plants and animals.

The countries also came up with a “shopping list”. This outlined concerns of the parties that ranged from availability of technology, safety and capacity building. The atmosphere was kept light by Australia and Brazil. Before a consensus could be reached, it was time for the plenary session.

Some of the countries gathered in a different room and came out after about 30 minutes with a text that could be formally included in the report of the meeting.

Milestone reached

This was a great milestone in the history of not just the negotiations, but also for the protocol. The text read as follows, “OEWG agrees to continue to work intersession in an informal manner to study the feasibility and ways of managing HFCs, including the related challenges set out inter-alia the annex with a view to the establishment of a contact group on the feasibility and the ways of managing HFCs, at OEWG 36.”

The annexure contained a list of 18 issues that the parties will seek to resolve. The Ozone Secretariat will assume the responsibility of bringing the parties together.

Now, it remains to be seen how countries utilise these opportunities to strike a deal under the Montreal Protocol to eliminate the threat HFCs to our climate.

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