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Expectations High For Climate-Changing Coolant Talks

A bigger club could soon be swung in an environmental game of wackamole — a game that was set off nearly 30 years ago when nations agreed to measures to save the ozone layer.

Given fresh support from India and China, several days of United Nations negotiations beginning Wednesday in Thailand could finally deliver progress on long-stymied efforts to phase down the use of a group of global warming refrigerants known as HFCs, used in fridges, air conditioners and other products.

Air conditioners in Singapore.
Credit: Peter Morgan/flickr

The idea, pushed in recent years by North American, European and Micronesian countries, is to substantially phase down the production and use of HFCs through amendments to the Montreal Protocol of the late 1980s.

“Expectations are running high,” David Doniger, a Natural Resources Defense Council official who is in Thailand for the talks, said.

The Montreal Protocol is rescuing the ozone layer from the once-rampant use of CFCs, but implementation has ushered in the widespread use of HFC refrigerants and other HFC-based products, such as aerosol propellants. HFCs are ozone layer-friendly — but they’re so climate unfriendly that they’re called super-greenhouse gases.

Abundance in the atmosphere of certain HFCs.
Credit: United Nations Environment Programme

India and China previously led efforts to block such amendments, concerned about the economic repercussions of switching to alternative coolants and other products. India had argued that proposals to reduce HFC use belonged only in U.N. climate negotiations — and that the Montreal Protocol should focus exclusively on ozone layer protection.

Suddenly, that opposition is melting away.

The big news ahead of this week’s round of Montreal Protocol talks is an unprecedented proposal from India, providing negotiators with a submission representing the interests of developing countries.

India is proposing that rich countries should phase down the manufacture and use of HFCs between 2016 and 2035, and that developing countries should be given 15 extra years to do so. Like other countries that have submitted proposals, India says developing nations could be compensated by richer countries for costs associated with HFC phase down. Billions of dollars in compensation was available for developing countries when they phased out their use and manufacture of CFCs under the Montreal Protocol.

“This is a complete U-turn in India’s stance,” reported Indian environmental journalist Nitin Sethi in the Business Standard. “The government had earlier internally assessed that such a move was inimical to the country’s economic interests, as well as its stake in the UN climate convention negotiations.”

Shopping for appliances in Mumbai, India.
Credit: The Climate Group/flickr

The Indian proposal is “consistent” with a joint statement issued by President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following meetings at the White House late last year, said Robert Stavins, a Harvard University economics professor who tracks international climate talks. (Chinese President Xi Jinping made a similar commitment to support such amendments following talks with Obama in mid-2013.)

India’s proposal “is an important step for India as it moves forward with its domestic policies and international negotiations regarding climate change,” Stavins said.

Formal decisions on HFC phase-down proposals would have to wait until an annual round of high-level Montreal Protocol talks is held in early November in Dubai. But support for HFC-related amendments to the Montreal Protocol is not universal.

“Most of the countries of the world have been in favor of tackling HFCs under the Montreal Protocol for four, five or six years, and the blockers of old are now seriously engaged,” Doniger said. “Now, you have some new blockers.”

Saudi Arabia is now leading the dwindling opposition to the HFC amendments, Doniger said. “One suspects that the Saudis see this as a larger piece of the game they’re playing on climate negotiations — which has been an obstructionist game.”

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