The Montreal Protocol, which former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan referred to as "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date," was first entered into by countries in 1987 as a vehicle to phase out the production of certain classes of hydrocarbons contributing to the hole in the ozone layer. But now the successful treaty is being considered by negotiators meeting this week in Bangkok as a vehicle to phase out the use of industrial chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs.
HFCs are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and are found in appliances all over the world. Left unchecked, HFC use is projected to skyrocket in the coming decades, owing in particular to growing demand for air conditioning in homes and vehicles in the developing world, and as a result of the ongoing phase-out of HCFCs under Montreal.
Now stay with me here, because this is where things get a bit confusing. HFCs were designed as a transitional gas to replace the use of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) which were themselves a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons, the original source of the ozone problem.
“Eliminating HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is the single biggest chunk of climate protection we can get in the next few years,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, reports The New York Times.
It is estimated that eliminating HFCs, one of the six greenhouse gases focused on by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), would prevent the equivalent emissions of 88-140 billion tons of CO2 by 2050, or about three to five years worth of annual global emissions from fossil fuels.
HFCs are currently covered under the UNFCC, but considering the successful record the ozone treaty has had in eliminating the use of dozens of ozone-harming chemicals, many believe that expanding Montreal to include HFCs offers the best hope for significant international movement on climate for the immediate future.
The UNFCCC is set to assemble next month in Cancun, Mexico, but most believe that the COP 16 meetings in Cancun do not carry the same chances for passing a binding agreement to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as did the the COP 15 round of talks in Copenhagen in 2009.
Not only would expanding the ozone treaty into climate protection be the most politically viable route on the table right now, a new report says it would achieve the most bang for the buck. The report (pdf), released by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), says using existing mechanisms put in place by the Montreal Protocol to produce reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is more cost-effective than any other international plan.
The report says the total cost for an HFC phase-out, which would follow on the Montreal Protocol's historic success in phasing out ozone-depleting substances, is estimated to be between $7-15 billion over 30 years, or about 100 times cheaper than the cost of achieving equivalent reductions under the UNFCCC process or through carbon markets.
"These are the most cost-effective, high-yield opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the world," said Samuel LaBudde, Senior Atmospheric Campaigner with EIA in a statement.
Despite widespread acceptance of the proposal by both governments and industry alike, it may not be approved this week in Bangkok. Developing countries, including China, India and Brazil, object that the timetable is too rapid and that payments from wealthy nations for eliminating the refrigerant are not high enough.
"The writing is on the wall," says Stephen Andersen, co-chair of the Montreal Protocol's Technical and Economic Assessment Panel, a research arm for the negotiators, at Nature. Andersen adds that even if agreement isn't reached this week to expand the role of the ozone treaty, "people are pretty confident that 2011 could be the year."
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Photo: Ferran Nogués