The U.S. State Department is working feverishly on a proposed amendment to the Montreal Protocol that would tap the highly successful international treaty for urgent climate duty.
Facing a May 4 deadline, State Department officials are meeting with their counterparts from across the administration this afternoon at the White House, and there is high expectation that they will secure the approval they need to go forward.
The goal is to use the Montreal mechanisms to phase out a class of man-made "super greenhouse gases" that have a global warming potential many thousands of times more powerful than a molecule of CO2. They are now used in small amounts, but their proliferation in coming decades is projected to grow astronomically.
Left unchecked, these gases – hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs – would add up to 25 times the current total U.S. emissions to the global burden by 2040, largely because of their use in ever greater numbers of automobile air conditioners and refrigerators in the developing world. They could effectively negate reductions in CO2 currently being contemplated.
Over the 20 years of its existence, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has tackled more than 90 similar gases, reducing their use by 97% globally, and policymakers believe it offers the best avenue for immediately phasing out these super GHGs.
State is collaborating with the EPA and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to beat the amendment deadline. With an administration only 100 days old, many unfilled positions within it, and the need for swift interagency cooperation, the effort to get government-wide agreement on the amendment has been challenging.
"The United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time, both at home and abroad," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared this week before a meeting of the major polluting economies of the world.
"The president and his entire administration are committed to addressing this issue [climate change], and we will act."
The first chance the State Department will have to make good on the encouraging rhetoric is by successfully introducing the amendment by the May 4 deadline.
The amendment has the support of Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, who are leading leading the charge on climate legislation in Congress. In an April 3 letter addressed to the president, they wrote:
"We believe there are compelling reasons to take the approach that has worked so well and amend the Montreal Protocol to include a phase down a HFCs. ... The Montreal Protocol framework has parties and staff with the technical expertise to phase-down HFCs, effective mechanisms for technology transfer, and a Multilateral Fund to assist developing countries with their phase-downs."
HFCs represent an emergency within the climate emergency, and there is growing unanimity in Washington to let the Montreal Protocol do what it already does best: regulate, phase out and destroy specialized gases like HFCs used by the refrigeration and air-conditioning industries.
"You give the Montreal framework a job to do, and it does it," said Durwood Zaelke, the founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development who directs the organization's fast-action climate mitigation strategies.
"It's a miracle treaty, really. They've got trained units in every developing country, boots on the ground ready to go."
To mobilize this tested global mechanism, however, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol is needed, because the treaty's authority is restricted to ozone destroying substances. Greenhouse gases, including HFCs, currently fall into what insiders call the "Kyoto basket" – "Kyoto" being the governing international climate treaty whose future extension and efficacy is still far from certain.
"We've been so successful with Montreal, and we have the experts and the assessment panels in place," said Stephen Andersen, a co-chair of the Technical and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) of the treaty who has been involved with the Montreal Protocol since its origin and also advises the EPA.
"I view it as a practical approach to the control of HFCs. Within the Kyoto basket, they are tiny chemicals, but they would be big chemicals inside Montreal in the years ahead."
The State Department and EPA have already convened two stakeholder meetings and concluded that HFCs would be best controlled under the Montreal Protocol. The meetings included representatives from industry, who "might even be ahead of government on this one," Andersen noted.
Now, the interagency sign-off is the hurdle. Andersen, who is the liaison to the Department of Defense, says DOD, for one, is fine with the approach, satisfied that the Montreal Protocol has been visionary and sophisticated in its success with phasing out ozone destroying substances.
The Montreal treaty has also already taken some explicit steps into climate territory. In 2007, it made an adjustment to accelerate an HCFC phase out, citing both ozone and climate benefits. It allocated hundred of millions of dollars to the effort and is at work on a special report that will address how best to move HFCs from the Kyoto basket to the Montreal basket. The report is due May 15 out of the panel Andersen co-chairs and will be followed by a meeting in July in Geneva.
"We hope they put the amendment in, then finish their internal discussion afterward if they have to," Zaelke said today about the U.S. interagency process. "The new team is working hard to get it done, and as of last night, there was a fair amount of optimism."
If the amendment gets introduced, it gets taken up by the treaty's Ozone Secretariat and prepared for approval by year's end. The amendment to the treaty would need Senate ratification.
That's why NGOs are also actively working to strengthen the HFC provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill, the framework national climate legislation now moving through the House. As we reported yesterday, the international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency is calling for a number of changes to the bill, concerned that existing provisions are too weak and will delay urgent action on HFC for at least another decade.
EIA is also concerned that the draft law will set a poor international example and dampen the ambitions of what Montreal negotiators think is possible. The proposed amendment being drafted by the State Department will have to hew closely to HFC standards in the Waxman-Markey bill. It is adding another complication to the interagency process.
"We can completely avoid HFCs," S.F. LaBudde of EIA said. "Developing countries leapfrogged from no phone service at all to national cellular infrastructures. It's analogous. There's no reason for them to invest in an HFC infrastructure, and then have to make an international appeal to get bailed out."
Zaelke sees a similar opportunity for phasing out HFCs, and more.
"Black carbon, tropospheric ozone, methane and HFCs – these are the things that will bring immediate cooling effects. They don't linger in the atmosphere like CO2 does," he said. "HFCs are projected to be one third of all climate forcings by 2040. This is a big issue and getting bigger."
The symbolic value of American leadership on the HFC is also an important factor at play. If the U.S. fails to introduce the amendment by May 4, the Federated States of Micronesia will be introducing one by itself. The nation of islands, threatened by sea level rise with disappearing entirely from the planet, has for years been active within the Montreal framework, working to strengthen it for climate purposes.
If Micronesia submits the amendment, the U.S. can always join in after the fact, but would cede leadership on the issue to one of the smallest nations on the planet.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza