At little noticed talks last week in Port Ghalib, Egypt, climate advocates were hoping to seal a global agreement for the phase down of super greenhouse gases and give next month's Copenhagen climate talks a can-do running start. But the annual meeting of the 198 nations of the Montreal Protocol began on a note of contention that five days of discussions could not overcome.
The 22-year-old Montreal Protocol has delivered an unbroken string of successes in the battle against ozone depletion, accomplished with comity and cooperation, but now observers say it has caught the climate virus. Rhetoric trumped getting down to business, as an agreement to rid the world of HFCs, enormously potent global warming gases, was postponed for at least another year.
"We're approaching tipping points fast, and we missed an opportunity to take action this year," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, who attended the talks in Egypt.
The central issue on the table was what to do about "super greenhouse gases," a popular term for hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. In previous years, the Montreal Protocol had anointed HFCs 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 to reduce carbon dioxide to safe levels by 2050.
It a serious matter that has gotten precious little attention.
The U.S. delegation at the talks in Egypt was pushing to amend the Montreal Protocol to allow for an HFC phase-down and was shocked to find its effort soundly rebuffed. Negotiating with less than full support from the administration at home, the U.S. team was also blindsided by simmering resentment among developing nations. It proved no match against the Chinese and Indian delegations. Largely for monetary reasons, both sat stubbornly opposed to the amendment and prevailed.
Even though the stakes for the global environment are very high, the meeting ended with no amendment and no binding decision on HFCs. Instead, 41 out of 198 countries signed a weak "declaration of intent."
Advocates are doing their best to put a happy face on the outcome, but the failure to act on phasing down HFCs is a disappointment, and it provides a preview of an outcome that many fear may be repeated on a larger scale in Copenhagen.
The U.S. had introduced an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to include HFCs in the list of gases the treaty could regulate. The proposal would have allowed the treaty's well-established working mechanisms to be deployed against the HFC emergency within the larger climate and greenhouse gas emergency.
"It provided the tantalizing prospect that the nations of the world are going to take the most significant action on climate mitigation possible in the near term," said Sam LaBudde of the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency.
While the U.S. amendment was supported by Canada and Mexico and buttressed by an even stronger proposal from Micronesia and Mauritius and other island nations, two conflicting positions emerged on Day 1 of the meeting.
The European Union occupied a middle ground. Though not opposed to a phase-out of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, the EU was not in favor of action that could disturb upcoming climate negotiations under the Kyoto regime prior to meetings in Copenhagen.
China and India took a more combative stance, staunchly and unabashedly opposing the U.S. proposal. They raised difficult legal issues that questioned whether the Montreal treaty could regulate gases that were not ozone-depleting substances and called for more research.
Observers say their motivation was largely stoked by financial self-interest and simmering resentment. China and India are still awaiting payment of about $1 billion from the Montreal Protocol's multi-lateral fund for engaging in the phase-out of HCFCs, a class of gases regulated by the treaty. Developed nations led by the U.S., which promised the funding more than 18 months ago, have balked at the levels being demanded. It is the first time in the history of the Montreal Protocol, observers say, that nations have failed to quickly agree on funding guidelines for a phase-down.
The U.S. delegation was unaware of how much the dispute was poisoning the ability to take concerted action on HFCs through the proposed amendment. China and India, joined by other developing nations, were not ready to sign up for a phase-out of HFCs until the funding and technology transfer to complete the previous phase-out were resolved.
But there was also far more at stake. 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," said Mark Roberts, an environmental attorney and international policy advisor for the Environmental Investigation Agency.
Roberts attended the meetings in Port Ghalib and provided SolveClimate with daily dispatches of the proceedings. On the second day of the meeting, he reported that China, India and a few other countries refused to even open discussion on the text that dealt with HFCs. It was later that day that the U.S. was forced to retreat.
"John Thompson, a senior member of the United States delegation to the Montreal Protocol, announced with reluctance that that the North American countries will not push for an amendment of the Montreal Protocol to implement the phase out of hydrofluorocarbons at the current meeting now going on in Port Ghalib, Egypt," Roberts reported.
The U.S. delegation, led by Daniel Reifsnyder, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, shifted to Plan B: It pressed for a strong "decision" from the assembled nations instead, hoping for binding actions that would set the stage for amending the Montreal Protocol in 2010. But that goal, too, proved beyond reach.
In the lead up to the Egypt meetings, the U.S. delegation was handicapped by less than full support from the administration. Last spring, President Obama's newly installed climate team balked at introducing an amendment the ozone team was championing, wanting more time to study the issue. The internal rift was smoothed over but never quite resolved.
The U.S. did eventually introduce a Montreal Protocol amendment, and the ozone team requested additional State Department staff to generate support for it from foreign governments. The request was not granted. Further, both Roberts and Zaelke said that neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the handful of phone calls needed for the amendment to succeed.
HFCs were also kept off the agenda in recent international climate talks in Bangkok, as negotiators had their hands full dealing with CO2. And with almost no media covering the meetings in Port Ghalib, it became easy for China and India to adopt an uncompromising "no deal" posture and send the HFC question to Copenhagen unresolved. It now becomes a bargaining chip in a larger and more complex negotiation.
"Another year of no action on HFCs adds a huge burden to the atmosphere," Roberts told SolveClimate by phone from Egypt. "And the delay makes it that much more costly to phase it down another year from now."
But the Montreal Protocol meeting did yield two binding decisions that Roberts says are important steps forward in climate protection. The parties agreed to stop paying for the substitution of ozone destroying substances if high-global warming potential gases such as HFCs are used; and they escalated actions to destroy existing banks of gases — as much as 6 gigatons of CO2-equivalent HFCs over the next five years — to prevent their release into the atmosphere.
Still, negotiators and insiders are concerned with the lack of progress on HFCs. Immediate action under the Montreal Protocol would prevent their manufacture to begin with, and it would offer a cheaper pathway to alternatives. HFCs handled in a climate regime are dealt with after they are produced and inserted into millions of cars and refrigerators dispersed around the globe, with much larger payments required to bring them under control.
It is a fearsome genie that no one wants out of the bottle. HFC proliferation would exacerbate an already dire climate emergency. Yet negotiators from both developed and developing nations proved themselves ill-prepared to harvest this low-hanging fruit. They failed at a crucial moment to send a model of successful global cooperation to Copenhagen to energize the already troubled talks there.
Zaelke still holds out hope for a good outcome. Negotiators in Copenhagen can deliver solid progress by officially requesting that the Montreal Protocol be used to phase down HFCs as quickly as possible, with oversight provided by the existing climate regime.
"It is still possible for Copenhagen to seize this opportunity to prevent the release of 100 billion tons of CO2-equivalent by enlisting the help of an adjunct treaty that already works," he said. "Resolving the HFC issue would be a good down-payment for a troubled system to make, and would break the climate logjam."
Zaelke is hoping Obama administration officials will supply the diplomatic muscle needed to make that happen this time, but just a few weeks shy of Copenhagen, there is no evidence they will.
"If they don't, then HFCs are just going to get lost in the noise, and we'll lose the opportunity to shape policy around fast actions that buy us as much time as possible," Zaelke said.