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Crunch Time in Copenhagen on Super Greenhouse Gases

Fast Action Option Could Help Close 'Mitigation Gap' and Rescue Talks

Dec 18, 2009

There's a global warming solution of enormous potential on the negotiating table here in Copenhagen. It could deliver reductions of up to 170 billion tons of CO2e over the next 40 years at a total cost of merely $4 billion. It is a fast action solution, something that can be done quickly and whose benefits would be felt almost immediately. And it works by preventing the manufacture of highly potent greenhouse gases, so that they never enter the atmosphere to begin with.

Nobody disputes the science, the negligible cost of action or the universal benefits of deploying the solution, but it has remained mired in the larger negotiating process as a potential pawn for extracting concessions. Now, with the climate talks bogged down as they head into the last day, this solution could play a role in rescuing the talks from failure.

It is yet another example among many at these talks in Copenhagen where the painful tension between global politics and universal morality is on exhibit, where deals and payoffs are needed to allow diplomats working in their own nations' interests to do the right thing for the planet.

"We could act to eliminate one of six greenhouse gases before the end this week," Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said. "We're juggling soap bubbles right now."

The opportunity on the table is ridding the world of "super greenhouse gases," a term for hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. HFCs were developed as replacement gases for ozone-destroying chemicals commonly used as refrigerants. Though HFCs do not harm the ozone, it turns out they are lethal global warming agents, thousands of times more potent than CO2 at warming the planet.

With rising prosperity in developing nations, HFC use is expected to skyrocket. Left unchecked, their build-up in the atmosphere could essentially negate current efforts under consideration to reduce carbon dioxide to safe levels by 2050.

The decision that is needed here to rid the world of HFCs before they are even manufactured is a very simple one. The Conference of Parties needs to officially request another existing UN treaty regime — the Montreal Protocol — handle the phase down of HFCs.

The Montreal Protocol was entered into by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate more than 20 years ago. It has already rid the world of almost 100 different ozone destroying substances, and has a working infrastructure in place in every country on the planet. A phase down of HFCs through the Montreal Treaty would be a slam dunk, veteran negotiators say.

The idea is to create a synergy between the ozone treaty and the climate treaty, between what Zaelke calls "the treaty that's never failed" and "the treaty that has yet to succeed." When the parties to the Montreal Protocol met in November and considered taking on the phase down of HFCs, a proposal supported by the U.S., the Chinese and Indian delegations stood opposed.

Observers said their motivation was largely stoked by financial self-interest. China and India could get paid a lot more for phasing out HFCs under a climate regime negotiated in Copenhagen than one set up through the Montreal Protocol.

"You're looking at a difference of getting $20 a ton under a climate regime and getting 20 cents a ton incrementally under the Montreal Protocol," Mark Roberts, an environmental attorney and international policy advisor for the Environmental Investigation Agency, told SolveClimate at the time.

HFCs thus have become part of the financial shell game here, as well, similar to forest resources, being asked to serve in the first instance as a monetary instrument. Their inclusion in a treaty hinges upon their ability to act as a potential source of cheap offsets to lubricate carbon markets. China and India want to realize windfall profits for the phase down, as they already have with HFC-23 under the Clean Development Mechanism, which has funneled billions of dollars into their economies for little environmental benefit. The U.S. wants HFC credits on the market so that they can substitute for more expensive CO2 reductions at home.

According to Roberts, China has more leverage at the moment. It is not going to negotiate away a pot of gold to the Montreal Protocol, which will pay the full costs of the phase down but not return a windfall, unless China gets something in return. The Obama team is pointing to HFCs as a U.S. success story already. It is highlighted in the brochure being handed out at the U.S. information center here in Copenhagen.

"In September, the United States joined Canada and Mexico in formally supporting a proposal to dramatically reduce the emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas, under the Montreal Protocol," the brochure boasts. "Amending the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs in developed and developing countries could prevent about 90 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions through 2050."

Though the 90 billion ton figure is conservative — about half of what scientists estimate — it is still an enormous reduction pool that could figure into the end-game today when President Obama arrives.

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