About three months ago they agreed to bilaterally “phase down” a potent class of global warming gases known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs. Now they’veagreedto “to consider all the relevant issues.” Is that historic progress?

Let’s Start Three Months Ago

The “they” I’m referring to are President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose “historic” meeting in June culminated in an agreement to “phase down” emissions of HFCs using the framework of the Montreal Protocol.

The Montreal Protocol, you may remember, is an international agreement established in 1987 to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the use of some types of halogenated hydrocarbons. (Hydrocarbons typically are composed of hydrogen and carbon; halogenated hydrocarbons have halogens such as chlorine or fluorine inserted to displace some hydrogen atoms.)

The protocol first focused on the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the most destructive in its class to ozone, and then it took to eliminating HCFCs or hyrdrochlorofluorocarbons. For the most part, the CFCs and HCFCs have been replaced by hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs). These compounds pose no threat to the ozone layer but they are potent global warmers.

Clever End Run Around Cumbersome UNFCCC, but to Where?

The Montreal Protocol was not designed to address climate change; theUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC) was. But the UNFCCC is very cumbersome,requiring unanimous agreement among some 192 nationsto move forward on any actions. And so, the clever end run: since the Montreal Protocol already deals with halogenated hydrocarbons, why not use it (instead of the UNFCCC) as the framework for an international agreement to phase out HFCs?

A great idea and yet, when the U.S.-China agreement on HFCs was first announced in June, I was nonplussed. In apostwritten shortly after the announcementI characterized the agreement as bringing “a Toy Truck to a 7-Alarm Fire,” and went on to argue:

“[G]iven all the other positive areas for collaboration on addressing climate change that the two countries could pursue … limiting the global-warming-reducing measures to eliminating HFCs seems, at least from where I sit, a bit of a disappointment.More of a mirage than a real plan to tackle climate change.”

Okay, I admit now that maybe I might have been a bit too negative, perhaps too caught up burnishing my iconoclast persona. Phasing down HFC emissions will a make a difference for the better. And a reasonable argument can be made that doing so represents a good first step, “picking the low-hanging fruit first” approach to climate change. And so I’ve reconsidered. I have resolved to be more positive. By all means let’s get started on HFCs. Although the iconoclast in me points out that to be a good first step you better phase down those HFCs soon and phase them down a lot.

President Obama Raises His Climate Game?

In what the White House proclaims as “historic progress,” we now learn that President Obama returned from the summit of the group of 20 leading rich and developing nations in Moscow last week withtwo new climate agreements on HFCs in his back pocket. One wasa statement of “support”by the G-20 leaders for

“complementary initiatives, … that include using the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).”

But notably absent from that agreement was any statement describing specific actions the G-20 or any individual countries would take to bring about the “phase-own.”

The other agreement, with China, represents the baby-est of baby steps forward from the June announcement. Reiterating the two nations’ commitment to phase down the use of HFCs, the new agreement is to set up a “contact group to consider all relevant issues.” The relevant issues include “financial and technology support to Article 5 developing countries, cost effectiveness, safety of substitutes, environmental benefits and an amendment [presumably to the Montreal Protocol].”

Gosh darn it, despite my new resolve to be more positive, I find myself nonplussed all over again. This just doesn’t seem like historic progress to me. I am worried about all those non-environmental issues that are “to be considered.” Doesn’t each represent a potential escape hatch for either country to use and walk away from its commitment?

And while it’s nice the president got China to agree to set up another working group (I assume that is what is meant by “contact group”) to consider what might be done about HFCs, without a timetable and a set of expectations, it’s not at all clear what will come of it.

But maybe I’m missing the bigger picture of the .U.S-China process. Surely there’s more.

The Bigger Picture: The U.S.-China Dialog on Climate

The two HFC agreements came about in the context of a wider set of discussions and negotiations between the two nations. Let’s take a look at a timeline of the major milestones in that process (HT toWRI’s Kristin Meek and Jonathan Moch):

April 13, 2013 – AJoint U.S.-China Statement on Climate Changeis publishedthatrecognizes “the urgent need to intensify global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and establishes the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG) to “determine and finalize ways in which the [two countries] can advance cooperation on technology, research, conservation, and alternative and renewable energy.”

June 8, 2013 –President Obama and President Xi meet in Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California,andannounce the agreement discussed above to focus on HFCs to fight climate change.

July 11, 2013 – Areportof the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue is released. The report identifies five new action initiatives: vehicle emissions, smart grids, carbon capture and storage, collecting and managing emissions data, and energy efficiency. Phasing down HFC emissions is not included as an action initiative; they are only mentioned briefly in the section on Enhanced Policy Dialog.

July 19, 2013 – Secretary of State John Kerry lays out areas of collaboration between the United States and China on climate in anop-ed for Think Progress. Weirdly the op-ed states that “two [not five] areas of focus will be reducing emissions from coal use and heavy and light-duty vehicles” and makes no mentions of a HFC phase-down.

September 6, 2013 – the latest agreement on setting up a contact group.

Some Good News but …

There’s good news here. It’s great to know that there’s more on the U.S.-China negotiation table besides HFC emissions. Although it’s rather bizarre, don’t you think, that Presidents Obama and Xi are bopping about the globe announcing new accords on HFCs while everybody else in the process —even the secretary of state —pretty much ignores HFCs?

And doesn’t it seem strange that Obama and Xi would make a big deal of announcing the formation of a “contact group” in September when way back in April the formation of the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group (CCWG) was announced?

Is it bizarre? Perhaps. Is it strange? Maybe. Is it “historic progress”? You decide.