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.
"Our understanding is that both developed and developing countries, including China, have signaled that if the big issues are resolved, the HFC phase-out can be part of the process," Roberts told SolveClimate. "The EU in particular is pushing the issue, but until the money, verification and KP [Kyoto Protocol] issues are resolved, this is in the background. Hopefully enough ministers have been briefed so that this will be added to any comprehensive outcome."
News leaked out last night that the deal currently on the table provides for emission reductions far short of what is needed, and a scramble is on to "close the mitigation gap." HFCs could have suddenly acquired a negotiating utility heretofore unexpected in the fluid context here.
Zaelke has been working the delegations on the issue, pressing into their hands a fact sheet (attached below) that tells the unappreciated story of the Montreal Protocol's success in delivering climate protection benefits already. Through the phase out of ozone destroying substances over the last 20 years, the treaty has also delivered about 200 billion tons of avoided CO2e emissions, since those now-banned substances also warm the climate. That is 20 times more emission reduction than the first commitment period under the Kytoto Protocol is expected to deliver when it ends in 2012.
The total cost? A mere $2.4 billion. And moving forward, Zaelke's fact sheet shows, there is the possibility of realizing up to 170 billion tons of avoided CO2e emissions by 2050 through the phase down of HFCs at a total cost of only $4 billion.
“Ministers need to recognize the few opportunities available on the table to build trust and achieve tangible results," Zaelke said. "It’s beginning to dawn on some folks at least that the fast, forgotten 50 percent can help close the gap, and keep us below 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius."
HFCs are only one piece of that potential Zaelke refers to, which also includes fast action solutions through cutting tropospheric ozone and methane emissions, and sequestering carbon in biochar. Those additional measures, Zaelke believes, can help bring the world back to 350 ppm and buy time as the global economy decarbonizes over the next 40 years. But in the Copenhagen crunch today, the HFC phase down is the only fast action mitigation strategy that has a chance of advancing.
That's because the language of the current treaty text specifically gives ministers the option of asking the Montreal Protocol to handle the phase down of HFCs. Paragraph 4 of the section on short term mitigation has two options:
Urges Parties, without prejudice to the scope of the Convention and its related instruments, to pursue, under the Montreal Protocol on Substances to Delete the Ozone Layer, the adoption of appropriate measures to progressively reduce the production and consumption of hydrofluourocarbons.
Delete para. 4