Small island nations stand first in the path of catastrophic impacts of global warming. Unless something is done, these nations face literal extinction in the certain sea level rise of coming decades.
As the innocent victims of a crisis they did nothing to create, they are the most persuasive advocates for climate action. But they are also the least powerful of nations on the globe, occupying a moral high ground that’s about to be swallowed up by the sea.
Earlier this month they issued a formal plea for help in the form of a proposed amendment to an existing international treaty. The amendment would enable the world to take swift and decisive action against a powerful class of warming gases called HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons.
Known as super greenhouse gases, HFCs are projected to add an enormous greenhouse gas burden in the next 30 years as their use in refrigerators and air conditioning systems grows in developing countries unless something is done immediately. On top of the warming power of CO2, HFCs are an emergency within the climate emergency.
In Geneva, around formal UN conference tables and careful discussions, the small island nations’ amendment was a central topic of discussion during the week-long Open Ended Working Group meeting of parties to the Montreal Protocol earlier this month.
The amendment was introduced by Mauritius and the Federated States of Micronesia. By the end of the meeting, eight other island nations had signed on as co-sponsors: the Seychelles, Kiribati, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Comoros, Madagascar and Palau — places few Americans could locate on a map, ten small nations out of 195 treaty signatories.
The existential clarity of these islands’ vulnerable position did little to persuade the big polluting nations to come to their rescue. Even the United States remained non-committal.
"The U.S. delegation said good things, but they never came out and said, ‘We support the amendment and we will take leadership,’" said Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, who attended the talks.
"Controlling HFCs is the single greatest near-term climate opportunity the Obama administration has, and with it, the U.S. can create tremendous momentum going into Copenhagen."
For now, the U.S. and many of the assembled nations are caught in opportunism and red tape, eyeing economic advantage and future negotiating room instead of heeding the plea from the island nations to move forward with a proven solution.
The case for approving the amendment is strong. The amendment would deploy the Montreal Protocol to control HFCs through the treaty’s network already on the ground in every country on the planet. It can immediately begin to phase down production and consumption of HFCs, and prevent an enormous amount of HFCs from being manufactured in the first place.
If you’re not standing on an island, however, there are ample reasons to move cautiously on a regime for controlling HFCs through the Montreal Protocol. For one thing, they are officially part of the "Kyoto basket" of gases. They are supposed to be controlled, not by the Montreal Treaty, but by the Kyoto Protocol and its climate treaty successor, if there is one.
It is a matter of legal jurisdiction.
Taking HFCs out of the Kyoto basket, or sharing them with the Montreal Treaty, creates a host of sticky issues, mostly because HFCs have a singular property. They exert a warming influence, molecule by molecule, many thousands of times more powerful than CO2, and that translates into an unparalleled economic opportunity.
If the price of a ton of CO2 is $30, it means that a ton of HFC-134a, for example — with a global warming potential 3,830 times greater than CO2 — would be worth more than $110,000 ($30 x 3,840). In other words, HFCs provide a supersized new currency that can be used to great benefit in carbon trading markets.
In the language of economists, HFCs "can lubricate carbon trading" and "take the pressure off of CO2 emissions reductions." It’s the hard luck of the small island nations that HFCs are such a precious trading commodity.
Currently, in the EU’s emission trading scheme, HFC-23 plays an outsized role. China and India in particular have reaped billions of dollars by funneling the gas through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Though accounting for only 1% of CDM projects, HFC-23 generates 25% of all CDM carbon credits.
That explains why both China and India, in Geneva, opposed the amendment of the small island nations to control HFCs via the Montreal Protocol. They like HFCs in the Kyoto basket just fine, rising seas notwithstanding, since their eyes are focused on the rising middle class of their rapidly developing economies.
The U.S. did not take an official position, but approached the talks with pragmatic encouragement: Perhaps there’s a way to handle HFCs through both the Montreal and Kyoto treaties? The Montreal Treaty could certainly do the job immediately and efficiently — it is the right mechanism; and at the same time, perhaps HFCs could remain in the Kyoto basket to lubricate the carbon market, too?
It’s an approach that leaves a big sweetener on the table for bilateral climate talks between the U.S. and China, and the U.S. and India. America’s European allies, already engaged in phasing down HFCs, are also counting on HFCs being in the Kyoto basket. Some African nations, observing the debate and the predicament of small island nations, expressed their support for the amendment, but most have a adopted a wait-and-see stance.
So for now, all the diplomatic delegations have entered an "intercessional period" — working out of public view in preparation for the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol in November in Egypt, and soon after the climate meeting in Copenhagen in December.
Will the small island nations’ amendment get adopted into the Montreal treaty? The game changer, observers believe, is U.S. support. Without it, the amendment has no chance.
Will HFCs be allowed to play an outsize role in carbon trading under the climate treaty? If the supersized HFC currency is allowed to distort the market, a Montreal Treaty amendment would do little good. Polluters will be able to keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and turn in HFC credits instead.
Despite the lack of a solid outcome, people who attended the meeting were nevertheless positive. The meeting was a preliminary skirmish, they said. The learning curve was steep; the U.S. still kept its option to provide leadership; it was six days of tough, productive work.
But when the delegations scattered from Geneva to all corners of the Earth after the meeting was over, the fact was that small island nations were still left to contend with the rising seas alone.
HFC Briefing Paper (Environmental Investigation Agency)