Countries made achingly slow progress towards curbs on the super heat-trapping pollutants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), at Montreal Protocol talks in Paris this week. In an effort to jumpstart progress, NRDC launched a new analytical tool to compare competing HFC phase-down proposals.
The vast majority of the world's nations support using the successful treaty that saved the ozone layer to phase down production and consumption of HFCs, the fastest growing set of climate-changing pollutants. HFCs are manufactured chemicals used in air conditioning and other applications. They have up to 10,800 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, on a pound for pound basis. Scientists tell us they could amount to as much as a quarter of all the heat-trapping pollution in 2050 if their growth continues.
There are now four concrete proposals on the table for amending the treaty to phase down HFCs - one each from the three North American countries, eight island nations, India, and the European Union. (A chart comparing them is here.) In plenary sessions, delegates from well over 100 countries very constructively debated the four proposals for four days, comparing and contrasting them through detailed questions and answers. Dozens of countries expressed greater support and impatience to move forward than ever before.
But detailed negotiations on treaty amendments are not actually conducted in the plenary. Detailed negotiations take place in a "contact group" made up of those countries most interested in the nitty-gritty. For seven years amendment proponents have sought to form that contact group and get negotiations under way. Over time nearly all of the initial opponents, including China and India, have come on board - India, as noted, has its own phase-down proposal; China also supports a phase-down and is playing a constructive role. By the last two meetings in November and April, the band of blockers had dwindled to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, a handful of Gulf States, and Pakistan.
In April, the blocking tactics of the Saudis and their allies came under fierce criticism from the African Group, which supports an HFC amendment. By June, it appeared that a path forward to start actual negotiations this week might finally have been found.
Not so lucky. The Saudis shifted tactics this week, declaring themselves now willing to allow a contact group, but only with complex preconditions on what may be discussed and in what order. After eating up an entire week, the Saudis moderated their conditions enough that it seemed a contact group agreement might come together on Friday, allowing true negotiations finally to begin at the next meeting.
But Pakistan remained an outright blocker.
The Montreal Protocol parties operate by consensus, but that does not mean unanimity. They have shown themselves willing to press ahead in the past if only a few countries object to the will of the overwhelming majority. Given the late hour, there wasn't time to try to override Pakistan in the plenary. So late Friday night, to keep things moving, they agreed to hold an extra session sometime before the parties' annual meeting in Dubai in November, where one hopes they put enough pressure on Pakistan to clear the last obstacle to starting real talks.
Counting the real engagement in the plenary, this is progress. But barely.
Breakthrough Requires High-Level Leadership
There is still a chance to reach an HFC agreement when the parties meet in Dubai in November, but two things are needed.
First, making the necessary breakthrough will require higher level leaders to grab the reins and take the initiative in the three months remaining before Dubai. Negotiators may get lost in the weeds, but high-level leaders can see that an HFC deal under the Montreal Protocol would be a big contribution to the larger climate agreement hoped for in Paris in December. It can happen if leaders and key ministers make it happen.
NRDC Launches IMPACT Analytical Tool
At the same time, the weeds are important. Reaching an agreement will require boiling down the four amendment proposals into one. It may simplifying and perhaps biting off a first step now (such as a freeze) and coming back to further steps later.
We heard great interest in Paris this week in understanding and comparing the proposals - especially understanding how their baselines, initial steps, and longer-term controls schedules compare, and how much HFC production and consumption they actually would allow.
To help meet this need, NRDC has developed an Excel-based analytical tool - called the "Interactive Montreal Protocol Amendment Comparison Tool" (IMPACT) - that translates the baseline formulas and reduction schedules of each proposal into CO2 equivalent amounts of HFC consumption. We will make IMPACT available to any party or observer. You can use this tool to assess the HFC consumption of the four proposals for developed and developing countries as a whole. You can compare any two proposals, and you can customize any proposal - or write a new one of your own.
We will soon add the ability to assess HFC consumption by smaller subgroups of parties and certain individual parties. IMPACT will also allow a country to input its own national data and projections and see how much national HFC consumption would be allowed under each proposal. We will also add the capability to assess how much HFC consumption is avoided, through 2050.
Using the IMPACT tool, one can quickly see that some differences among the proposals matter a lot, and some less so. These insights will help negotiators - and high-level ministers - make informed decisions and focus on the features that are important for climate protection.
If you would like a copy of the IMPACT tool, you can contact my NRDC colleague Alex Hillbrand, IMPACT's developer, at email@example.com.
We hope IMPACT will make an impact towards a deal in Dubai.