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US-China agreement on super greenhouse gases–A real breakthrough?

The landmark agreement between President Obama and President Xi on Saturday to curb super greenhouse gases, specifically hydroflurocarbons (HFCs), could be the best news we have heard in a while. It is the first time that the largest producers and consumers of these harmful chemicals have agreed to work together to phase-down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, which could prevent 100 billion tonnes CO2e by 2050. That is about 300 times the amount of carbon emissions the entire Amazon forest absorbs in a year. However, while the agreement is a step in the right direction toward combatting climate change, actions speak louder than words and what remains to be seen is how both countries follow through on their commitment.

The United States and China specifically agreed to “work together and with other countries through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, while continuing to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.” Four questions will help us understand, what this really means.

What are HFCs?

HFCs are chemicals primarily used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and foam blowing, which were introduced to replace the ozone depleting chemicals phased-out by the Montreal Protocol, despite the fact that HFCs are extremely harmful to the climate with global warming potentials hundreds and thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide (CO2). Fortunately, commercially available, climate-friendly alternatives already exist for most of their uses and others are expected to become available during the phase-down.

Why the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol is hailed as the most successful multilateral environmental treaty having rid the world of 97 percent of ozone-depleting chemicals. Even though the Protocol has prevented a reduction of 220 Gt CO2e since the 1990s, which is more than the approximate emissions 60,000 coal powered plants would release in a year, the Montreal Protocol risks negating its contribution to combating climate change through its unintentional commercialization of the super greenhouse gases, HFCs. To remedy that, Micronesia, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have put forth amendment proposals to the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs every year since 2009.

Why is this agreement great news?

Although 112 countries have voiced support for an HFC phase-down amendment in the last three years, a handful of countries including China, India and Brazil, have opposed it, citing the following myths:

Myth 1: “Alternatives to HFCs do not exist”

Fact: They do for a majority of sectors in which these gases are used.

Myth 2: “This is a UNFCCC issue”

Fact: Not really. Commercialization of HFCs were a result of the Montreal Protocol decision to phase out ozone depleting substances. The amendment proposals and the agreement have always recognized that the Montreal Protocol only deals with the production and the consumption (like the engine of a car) while accounting and reporting of emissions will remain within the scope of the UNFCCC and Kyoto provisions (like the exhaust pipe of a car).

Myth 3: “Montreal Protocol will not be fair to developing countries”

Fact: The Montreal Protocol is the only international environmental agreement that has been joined by all 197 States in the world. Commitments under Montreal Protocol allow technology transfer and a grace period for developing countries in recognition of developing countries’ right to continued growth and development. Additionally, developed countries provide funding through the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol to support developing countries phase-downs.

What next?

By signing such a significant climate agreement, President Obama and President Xi are sending a strong positive signal to the next round of negotiations that take place in Bangkok starting June 24th for the Montreal Protocol to begin phasing out HFCs.

With concerted effort, the United States and China can work with the 111 countries already committed to a phase-down under the Montreal Protocol, to slow climate change and sea level rise, as well as prevent the world from reaching irreversible climatic “tipping points.” We urge India, Brazil and all other countries who have been opposing the Amendments to join China and the United States and form a global consensus to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol this year.

EIA will be in Bangkok to ensure that this historic opportunity is not lost.

For more information, contact EIA:

Avipsa Mahapatra
+1 (202) 483-6621

Mark Roberts
+1 (978) 298-5705

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