A new global agreement clinched this weekend to curtail use of a class of highly warming chemicals used in air conditioning and refrigeration puts a check next to the last major item on President Obama’s climate diplomacy bucket list.
The amendment to the Montreal Protocol phasing down heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which was adopted in the early hours of Saturday in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, is in part the result of 7 ½ years of lobbying and maneuvering by the Obama administration, environmental advocacy community and U.S. industry bent on using the ozone treaty to phase down the climate-forcing chemicals.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Kigali the agreement is “a monumental step forward.”
“It represents multilateral patience and diplomacy and efforts over a long period of time,” he noted.
It was also the final piece of the administration’s trifecta of climate goals for 2016—an agenda that also included facilitating the early entry into force of last year’s Paris climate deal and the negotiation of a market mechanism to contain greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation.
All of these objectives have now been reached. One senior State Department official who worked on two of the recent agreements said negotiators were “a combination of giddy tempered by exhaustion.”
“I think there’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction that countries came together so successfully to build on the success of Paris and really address the problem of climate change,” the official said. “But I don’t think anybody will be sitting on their laurels.”
This weekend’s agreement by nearly 200 members of the Montreal Protocol will be legally binding, inviting trade sanctions for countries that fail to live up to their obligations. It would reduce global HFC levels by between 80 and 85 percent by 2047, helping the world avoid nearly half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century.
“We came to take a half a degree Celsius out of future warming, and we won about 90 percent of our climate prize,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, who has worked toward the agreement for more than a decade. “The majority of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, and we’ll get the rest through market forces.”
The deal sets different baselines and timelines for developed countries and for two distinct groups of developing nations, including a group of more than 100 nations led by China that has committed to move quickly toward more climate-friendly alternative coolants and a more cautious group of high-ambient-air-temperature countries that has insisted on more time.
Developed countries, including the United States, would stop growing HFCs by 2018 and show their first 10 percent reduction in the chemicals’ use by 2019 based on levels in 2011-13. An 85 percent decrease would come due in 2036.
The final version of the amendment saw all developing countries agree to tighter timelines and phase-down targets than they had proposed before the conference began last week. Members of the group of developing first movers, which includes China, South America, Africa and most other poor nations, would cap their production and use of HFCs in 2024 and begin ratcheting them down in 2029. Members of a second group of improbable allies, including Iran, Iraq, the Gulf Cooperation Council, India and Pakistan, would stop growing their share of the chemicals in 2028 and make their first cuts in 2032.
India in particular has resisted promising early cuts, saying that would harm its ability to give more of its population access to much-needed air conditioning and refrigeration. Before the conference, it had proposed language that would allow poor countries to grow their HFC use until 2031.
Indian experts say it’s a matter of market access.
“Of all developing countries, India now has the highest rate of growth of the air conditioning sector,” said Ajay Mathur, director-general of the New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute. The burgeoning demand forced India to push for more headroom in the rule that would allow the sector to grow, he said.
But advocates for the amendment say they expect even India and its cohort to transition more swiftly from HFC use than they currently project.
“Historically, the market has always moved ahead of the control schedule the treaty sets,” said Zaelke, predicting that in this case it would “move the laggards very gracefully into an accelerated phase-down” of HFCs.
Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute President Stephen Yurek said it was understandable that poor countries wanted some wiggle room in the agreement. “Their markets are very much more immature,” he said. “To freeze now would have made them go first in the technology or made it so their citizens wouldn’t have had access to life-saving air conditioning and refrigeration.”
But with 90 percent of the global air conditioning and refrigeration market now destined to start transitioning away from HFCs by the end of the next decade, the industry will also begin to shift, he said, bringing down the cost of alternative technologies. That in turn will make it more likely that India and its cohort will meet their targets early, Yurek said.
“Once there’s broader use of the different alternative refrigerants, the prices are going to go down because manufacturers aren’t trying to recover their research and development costs,” he said.
The same trend occurred when the world phased out chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol to combat ozone thinning, he said, and that enabled countries to transition ahead of schedule.
But while the group of high-ambient-temperature countries was granted more time to shift to non-HFC alternatives under the deal, the extra three years appears to have come at a cost. The State Department official said they wouldn’t be eligible for the $80 million in additional funding that rich countries and private financiers pledged last month to help poor countries comply with an “ambitious” phase-down schedule and upgrade the energy efficiency of their cooling and refrigeration systems in the process.
All developing countries will be supported by the protocol’s Multilateral Fund, which rich countries are due to replenish next year as they do every three years. But that assistance is also calibrated to a country’s obligations under the agreement, so India and its cohort will access a smaller share of those resources, as well.
Obama administration seeks to shore up its legacy
For the U.S. delegation to Kigali—both government and nongovernmental organizations alike—this weekend marked the end of a long campaign.
“It’s taken a while,” agreed Zaelke, who has worked on the Montreal Protocol since its inception in 1987 and on the HFC amendment ever since Micronesia, Mauritius and Morocco—the three “M’s”—put forward the first such amendment 10 years ago.
HFCs are chemicals that can be thousands of times as climate-forcing as carbon dioxide and that proliferated largely because the protocol tapped them as an alternative to ozone-depleting coolants. But not everyone agreed that the ozone treaty was the right place to address HFC proliferation, and China and India initially insisted that climate pollutants should be dealt with only under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The breakthrough came when Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013 and they agreed that the world’s two largest economies would collaborate on two things—North Korea and a Montreal Protocol amendment on HFCs.
“That agreement set the stage not just for this HFC phaseout accord but for the broader Paris Agreement,” said Paul Bledsoe, a White House climate adviser during the Clinton administration. The two powers would go on to broker deals in 2014 and 2015 that would pave the way for the world to come together on a deal last December in the French capital.
“In a way, HFC diplomacy bookended the beginning and the ending of the remarkable last three years of Obama’s international climate success,” said Bledsoe.
Zaelke credited Obama and his team—including Kerry, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and former Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern—with working to till the ground for an HFC amendment even as they worked toward other objectives, like the Paris deal.
“The president has a lot of his own prestige and a lot of his own power into this,” he said. The Sunnylands summit was followed by meetings between Obama and Indian, South American and North American leaders, and by increasingly specific declarations over the last two years from the Group of Seven and Group of 20 countries, all calling for an HFC amendment.
“Each time that he met and negotiated with leaders and groups of leaders, he pushed for more explicit details, including finally to get an ambitious agreement in 2016,” he said.
“History will credit President Obama for turning the U.S. from climate laggard to climate leader, by acting at home and forging the international consensus for global action that is now coming to fruition,” said David Doniger, climate and clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Like Zaelke, Doniger has spent years pressing for an international amendment to phase down HFCs, and in emails from the return flight from Kigali he said he felt “great satisfaction that we are finally getting started at curbing dangerous climate pollution, while at the same time regret for the coming consequences of our lost time and delayed start. Our children and grandchildren will both thank us for acting and curse us for having waited so long.”
The administration’s determination to get an HFC amendment across the finish line before Obama leaves office this year could be seen in the involvement of three of his highest officials during last week’s conference. An estimated 40 minister-level officials participated in the talks, but two of them were from the United States—Kerry and McCarthy, who headed the delegation.
Kerry spoke in the plenary, while McCarthy engaged in talks with small groups of key countries, the State Department official said. “It helped show the rest of the world why this was a very serious negotiation taking place and helped secure an agreement,” the official said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz supported their efforts with phone calls to fellow energy ministers.
Zaelke said the many years of discussion that proceeded this weekend’s amendment allowed producers time to readjust their investment plans away from highly climate-forcing coolants.
“The smart money started moving when the discussions got serious a couple of years ago,” he said. “What it has done is prepare for the implementation of the agreement to go very fast.”
The U.S. coolants industry was an early supporter of an HFC amendment—a fact that Zaelke said would make it difficult for any future administration to walk back U.S. commitments to the deal, even if it wanted to.
Yurek recalls meeting with State Department and U.S. EPA officials during Obama’s first term as part of a delegation of environmentalists and industry advocates to drive home the idea that HFCs should be addressed under the ozone treaty, not the broader U.N. climate process as some developing countries insisted.
That was after efforts on Capitol Hill to enact a carbon cap-and-trade bill stalled that would have also dealt with HFCs.
The broader climate negotiations also seemed to be in doubt in the years following the collapse of the 2009 talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. Meanwhile, the Montreal Protocol was lauded as the most successful treaty in history, complete with nearly 200 members, a Multilateral Fund to help finance actions by poor countries and a record of countries outperforming their targets.
“It’s great that this is finally over,” said Yurek. “But now we have the hard work as an industry of implementing this and making sure that we meet the obligations but hoping that we exceed them.”
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net. Click here for the original story.