A Look Back at Climate Promises: Why 2014 Must be the Year of Action on HFCs

Last year was the year of high-level promises on reducing emissions of Hydroflurocarbons (HFCs).  From President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to bilateral agreements with China, statements by the G20 and demands by the Arctic Council, all of the largest producers and consumers of HFCs promised actions to phase down these super greenhouse gases (GHGs), which are hundreds and thousands of times more climate-damaging than carbon dioxide.  

Last year’s promises are part of the efforts to amend the Montreal Protocol, considered the world’s most successful international environmental treaty, which was established to phase out of ozone depleting substances (OSDs). Unfortunately, HFCs have become commercialized as the replacement chemicals for OSDs.  It is time to put the promises of 2013 into action and mitigate more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) by 2050.  

In 2013, the 20 largest world economies, known as the G20, agreed to use the resources of the Montreal Protocol to discontinue the use of HFCs.  Additionally, the seven member countries of the Arctic Council “[urged] the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to take action as soon as possible…to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, which contribute to the warming of the Arctic region.”  At the same time, the 28 member states of the European Union (EU) were then negotiating a revision to their F-gas Regulation that bans the use of HFCs in some sectors and implements a phase down of 79 percent of the use of HFCs throughout the EU by 2030. It was clear one year ago that action was needed, but besides the action by the EU, no decisions have been finalized.

The United States, Canada, and Mexico, joined by Micronesia and Morocco, submitted two amendment proposals to the Montreal Protocol, each proposing to begin phasing down the use of HFCs immediately. Unfortunately, these efforts have been stalemated by just a few countries, including India and Saudi Arabia.

In 2013 President Obama signed an historic agreement with the President of China, stating that the two countries would work together and “through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.” After the agreement was signed, President Obama released his Climate Action Plan, which tasks the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create regulations that ban the most climate-damaging HFCs, and continue to open the U.S. market to climate friendly substitutes for HFCs.

That brings us to 2014. Will the United States turn its words into action? Will U.S. leadership use the momentum of last year to rid the world of one of the most potent class of GHGs? The answer seems to be a cautiously optimistic “Yes.”

On June 26, a bipartisan bill spearheaded by U.S. Senators Murphy (D-CT) and Collins (R-ME) was released to tackle HFC emissions, and the EPA signed a proposed rule to increase the number of HFC-free options in the marketplace. These are great first steps that have been complemented by China’s May announcement of its intention to reduce HFC emissions by 280 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents during the period from 2011 to 2015. Much more is needed from both the United States and China, the two largest producers and consumers of HFCs, if real progress is going to be made to phase out the use of HFCs. EIA hopes that 2014 is the year that real reductions in HFC production and consumption are implemented.

Our planet is on the brink. The IPCC Summary for Policymakers warns of the dangers of the already changing climate—warmer oceans, melting snow and ice, and increased sea levels. In emerging economies like India, the pressures from the changing climate will slow economic growth, impact infrastructure, erode food security, and increase water scarcity. In China, disappearing glaciers will significantly affect water supply while increased rainfall will cause extreme flooding.

In the United States, the effects of climate change are just as dire. The National Climate Assessment sounds the harsh warning that sea levels will rise between 1-4 feet by 2100, and with nearly 5 million people in the United States living within four feet of the local high-tide level, the economic impacts will be severe.

Swift, effective, and large reductions in GHGs must start now. 

In one week the nations of the world will once again meet to discuss an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs at the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), a meeting that will, for the first time, include a special workshop focused on the management of HFCs. EIA expects that the progress made thus far will result in the Parties to the Montreal Protocol beginning to craft a global deal to phase down HFCs at the OEWG. To combat the effects of climate change, EIA will continue to advocate for a phase down of HFCs as a demonstration that working together the countries of the World can achieve substantial mitigation and effectively combat global warming.

What Are HFCs
HFCs are man-made fluorinated gases (F-gases) developed and commercialized to replace the chemicals that de¬plete the ozone layer. HFCs are powerful GHGs, with global warming potentials hundreds and thousands of times more powerful than CO2, and are primarily used in refrigeration, air conditioning, foam blowing, aerosols, fire protection, and solvents.

HFCs currently represent approximately two percent of global GHG emissions. Although their contribution to climate change is still relatively small, it is expected to soar in the coming decades, with emissions of HFCs increasing at a rate of 10-15 percent per year. Unless action is taken now, global HFC emissions could reach 5.5–8.8 GtCO2e per year in 2050, equivalent to 9–19% of projected global CO2 emissions under a business-as-usual scenario. A large share of the increase will take place in developing countries, where emissions are projected to be as much as 800 percent greater than developed countries’ emissions by 2050. However, climate-friendly alternative refrigerants and technologies are available, which means that HFCs can be phased out over time.