The U.S. State Department issued an international proposal jointly with the governments of Canada and Mexico this week to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) starting as early as 2011.
The move represents a welcome breakthrough for the administration, whose HFC policy has been delayed since May when interagency disagreements stalled U.S. action on the super greenhouse gases.
HFCs, found in small amounts in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems, have a climate warming impact many thousands of times greater than CO2.
Without aggressive action to curb their rapidly growing use in developing nations, their emissions could equal up to 45 percent of CO2 emissions by 2050, under a scenario where CO2 emissions are stabilized at 450 parts per million. They would virtually negate pending international efforts to slash global carbon emissions in coming decades.
The North American proposal throws its weight behind the effort initiated last April by the small island nations of Mauritius and Micronesia to use the existing international treaty mechanism of the Montreal Protocol to accomplish the HFC phase down.
It would be the first time that the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, recognized as a very successful treaty that has stopped the global use of more than 90 ozone-destroying substances in its 20 years, would be deployed to control climate warming gases.
"The North American leaders know a good climate treaty when they see one," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, who has campaigned long and hard in favor of using the Montreal Protocol to control HFCs. "It is a test case for the world in the run up to Copenhagen and demonstrates how to take pieces of the climate challenge and solve them with the most appropriate governance structures."
The North American proposal officially submitted to the Ozone Secretariat of the UN Environment Program was careful to state that deploying the Montreal Protocol to phase down production of HFCs would not remove the gases from the jurisdiction of the Kyoto climate treaty and its successor.
"They're saying if the climate treaty people wants to be in charge of the accounting, that's fine," Zaelke explained. "It's a plug-and-play approach."
But it is in this jurisdictional gray area that obstacles to final agreement between governments still remain. In addition, a trade in HFC credits under the climate treaty runs the risk of substituting HFC reductions for reductions of carbon emissions when the science demands that both must be reduced simultaneously.
The release of the proposal by the State Department comes just a week before President Obama is to give an address on climate change before the United Nations in which it is anticipated that he will enumerate U.S. achievements since he recently took office, and their rapid pace, and underscore America's willingness to lead the world to solutions.
"Once adopted, the proposal would make great strides to achieve President Obama's call to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, as well as contribute to multilateral efforts to reduce global emissions 50 percent by 2050," a State Department statement said.
It is a delicate moment as Congress is stalled on federal climate legislation whose weak targets and large loopholes in any case have disappointed governments around the world. In addition to new rules for better auto efficiency, the HFC proposal provides the president with an important initiative to point to.
The North American proposal supplements the amendment proposed by small island nations to bring HFCs under the Montreal Protocol and suggests a slowing in the pace of the phase down, which may give it a greater likelihood of ratification.
"I predict it will become the rallying point of the consensus," Zaelke said. "The most important thing is to get started, and then strengthen it over time. That has always been the political genius of the Montreal treaty."
But obstacles remain. China, a major global manufacturer of HFCs, and India, projected to be one of the greatest consumers of HFCs, have publicly opposed the effort to move HFCs out of the Kyoto basket of gases.
"The real play will be overcoming whatever objections India and China will have," said S.F. Labudde of the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency. "We still don't know if the White House will give the State Department the support it needs to get this done this year."
Labudde recently attended a Montreal Protocol meeting in Geneva and a climate treaty meeting in Bonn where he encountered delegates from both India and China who were outspoken in their opposition to the amendment proposed by the small island nations. Now that the U.S. has thrown its weight behind the amendment, the negotiating dynamic has suddenly changed.
The hope is that parties to the Montreal Treaty, meeting in Egypt in November, will adopt a consensus amendment to phase down HFCs and provide much-needed momentum to climate negotiations immediately following in December in Copenhagen.
Even if the Montreal Treaty is tapped to lead the phase down, however, HFCs still pose a threat to any negotiated climate regime. Billions of CO2e tons of these super greenhouse gases will still be manufactured and consumed in coming decades. The danger is that these gases will be captured and destroyed in order to generate trading credits that would allow heavy carbon polluters to continue emitting CO2 instead.
European nations are especially sensitive to preserving the role of HFCs in the Kyoto trading basket, expecting credit for any steps taken to stop present and future stores of HFCs from escaping into the atmosphere. In developing nations, HFCs will also generate credits, through the offset mechanism.
The problem is that HFCs are a market-distorting currency. Since HFCs are as much as 11,990 times more potent than CO2, small amounts of HFCs could substitute for large amounts of CO2 emissions and offer a cheaper alternative to emissions reductions, lubricating the economy to a more gradual embrace of a price on carbon. It also means CO2 emissions would ratchet down more slowly. It could prove to be a self-defeating accommodation.
The enormous warming burden that HFCs would place on the atmosphere was only recently recognized. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June added pressure to the need for immediate international action.
The data indicated that HFC emissions are expected to increase strongly within the next five years and contribute up to 170 gigatons of CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere by 2050. In 2050 alone, global HFC emissions are projected to be between 5.5 and 8.8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. Current total U.S. CO2 emissions are about 7 gigatons.
That's why Zaelke was upbeat about the State Department proposal.
"It's a historic development and I'm pretty jazzed about it," he said. "I think there's a strong tailwind and the muscle to pull this off."