User login

Negotiators Make Progress But HFC Phasedown Deal 'Not A Given Yet'

July 25, 2016

U.S. and other negotiators made progress toward a deal to phase down high global warming potential (GWP) hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants during last week's meetings in Vienna, though both environmentalist and industry observers say more must be done to bring India and other developing countries closer to the ambition proposed by a coalition of countries including the United States.

The mood at the end of the talks was a sense that “this is not going to be easy, it's not a given yet,” Avipsa Mahapatra, global climate and HFC campaign manager at the Environmental Investigation Agency told InsideEPA/climate.

Nonetheless, she added, “To me, the optimistic part was that all nations seem ready to get this amendment. There didn't seem to be a party that was unwilling to participate in the negotiations.”

The July 15-23 meetings marked the first time in the nearly decade-long effort to craft global HFC limits that countries formally discussed the structure and ambition of a phasedown, which will be developed as an amendment to the Montreal Protocol -- the 1987 treaty originally crafted to limit ozone-depleting chemicals.

Discussion at the Vienna meeting included the baseline, freeze date and the control schedule, as well as the amount of funding developed countries commit to the protocol's financial arm -- the Multilateral Fund -- the first time negotiators had focused on the core of any amendment proposal, sources say.

Countries spent much of last week debating the phasedown structure, including when the phasedown should begin for developed and developing countries and how quickly developed and developing countries should be required to transition away from HFCs. And while such debate saw some countries moving closer to compromise, sources say there is still significant work to be done before negotiators will be in a position to finalize an amendment, which they are slated to do this October in Kigali, Rwanda.

“The devil is in the details, and that is where there will be long and hard negotiations,” Mahapatra said.

But her sentiments about countries' willingness to negotiate the issues was echoed by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who noted that “there is no country that appears to be standing on the sidelines.” McCarthy led the U.S. delegation during the last few days of the meetings, and Secretary of State John Kerry joined the talks July 22, marking the first time a high-level foreign minister has attended such meetings.

The presence of such high-level U.S. officials reflects “the Administration's commitment to securing an ambitious amendment in 2016,” EPA noted in a July 23 statement.

The agency added: “Since an HFC amendment is the single biggest step the world can take to deliver on the goals of the Paris Agreement to hold warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Administration will remain committed to working with all Parties to complete these negotiations in Kigali.”

Most advocates consider the HFC amendment the quickest and most cost-effective way to deliver on the climate targets set by the Paris deal last year, noting that a phasedown of the high-GWP chemicals could curb as much as 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

And that message was “very loud and clear” at the meetings last week, Mahapatra said, noting that the HFC phasedown could reduce 100 billion tons of carbon emissions, as well as potentially another 100 billion tons of emissions from energy efficiency gains.

The HFC amendment and the Paris Agreement are “very closely connected. That's very well understood amongst the parties,” Mahapatra said, adding that success in Kigali in October would “energize the discussion” ahead of the next Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November.

Phasedown Proposals

EPA in its statement listed a number of outcomes from the Vienna meetings, including: agreement on solutions to all tangential issues identified last year in Dubai; “substantial simplification” of the range of proposals on HFC phasedown schedules; agreement to hold an “intersessional” meeting before Kigali; an instruction to the protocol's research group brought by the United States and Canada to examine the climate benefits and costs of the various proposals; and a request for consolidated negotiating text to be prepared.

What ultimately emerged was a series of six, more simplified options for the baseline and freeze date for developing -- or Article 5 -- countries. The most ambitious of those is a joint proposal that includes the United States and other major developed countries -- such as the European Union, Canada, Japan and others -- as well as the African countries, Pacific Island nations and several Latin American countries.

That proposal recommends a baseline for Article 5 countries of 2017-2019, and a freeze date of 2021. For developed -- or non-Article 5 -- countries, the proposal suggests a baseline of 2011-2013 and would require a 10 percent HFC reduction in 2019, which is consistent with what North America originally proposed.

Other phasedown proposals were offered by: the Gulf countries; jointly by China and Pakistan; jointly by Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina and the English-speaking Caribbean; Iran; and India.

But while several of the Article 5 countries' proposals seemed to coalesce around a freeze date of 2025-2026, India's proposal is an outlier, calling for a baseline for Article 5 countries of 2028-2030 with a freeze date of 2031.

This reflects an underlying theme in the talks, during which India has been hesitant to agree to a more ambitious phasedown. Out of countries' original four amendment proposals, the one from India had a baseline that lagged by several years and it sought to cut HFCs by a lot less than the other proposals.

But environmentalist and industry observers say India is going to have to move closer to the ambition of the other proposals if countries are to secure an amendment this fall.

“While the vast majority of countries -- from China (the largest HFC producer) to the smallest island nations -- showed flexibility and willingness to advance the pace of action, India stuck to its original position, the least ambitious on the table,” wrote David Doniger, climate director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a July 23 blog post.

“India may be waiting to compromise until the last minute in Kigali. But by bargaining this way, India may lose leverage to shape creative solutions that allow it access to earlier action and earlier funding,” Doniger added.

India's Hesitation

But Steve Yurek, president of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), says India's hesitation reflects the current size of the country's market for air-conditioning and refrigeration products, which is “very small and growing.”

Indian officials worry that if the amendment's baseline is set in the next couple years, it will severely limit its domestic sector's growth, as well as hamstring companies from being able to provide cooling appliances in the high temperature country due to the lack of low-GWP alternatives.

Although the industry has developed low-GWP alternatives to HFCs, they are not yet “commercially available,” in part because the alternatives are mildly flammable and international and domestic building codes have not yet been updated to allow their use, Yurek says.

U.S. companies are addressing this issue as EPA works to domestically phase out HFCs through its Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program, but in India, the issue is more acute because the country relies primarily on smaller air-conditioning and refrigeration systems and the international safety codes either do not recognize or do not yet allow for the use of alternatives for these systems.

And for most countries -- including India, China and the United States -- those international codes, once updated, must be adopted by domestic building and fire codes before companies can start making commercially available products, Yurek said.

Yurek says that India's concerns could be allayed somewhat by an effort AHRI is spearheading, in partnership with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the Department of Energy, EPA and now California, to identify the best ways to use low-GWP alternatives that are also mildly flammable and to urge speedier adoption of the necessary building and safety codes.

He told InsideEPA/climate that AHRI received oral commitments in Vienna from at least 12 countries -- both developed and developing -- to join this research initiative in some capacity, whether it be monetary, information sharing or otherwise.

This effort could help by “providing the technical information that not only the U.S. and North American safety committees need, but all of the international safety standard committees,” Yurek said, adding that it would allow them to “make appropriate modifications to the safety codes addressing how mildly flammable and flammable refrigerants can be used for domestic refrigeration, cooling and heating.”

Developed Countries' Ambition

Nevertheless, EIA's Mahapatra noted that India, as well as other Article 5 countries, could be encouraged to move quicker to phase down the high-GWP chemicals if non-Article 5 countries were to increase their own ambition.

The options on the table for non-Article 5 baselines “were still not consistent with what we think are the more ambitious proposals,” she said, citing an original proposal from a group of island nations that called for a 15 percent HFC reduction in 2017.

“These are the countries that know what their current HFC component is,” she added. In the United States, for example, “the EPA has a bunch of SNAP rulemakings already moving in the right direction.”

Were non-Article 5 countries to line up their ambition with that of the island nations' original proposal, it could boost the confidence of Article 5 countries to agree to a more ambitious baseline and freeze date.

“If the question is regarding the feasibility [of the phasedown], if you see other major consuming countries go faster, it does demonstrate confidence in the availability of the technology and the urgency to do so,” Mahapatra said.

Mahapatra, Yurek and others noted that discussion will continue post-Vienna to “narrow” the options and find a resolution in order to best position countries to adopt an amendment in October in Kigali.

“Everybody sees what needs to be done,” Yurek said, adding that parties were also “positive on what was accomplished” in Vienna. “Even if they have concerns, everybody understands and believes there will be an amendment to the protocol allowing and covering HFCs.” -- Abby Smith (

Not a subscriber? Sign up for 30 days free access to exclusive climate policy reporting.