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EU leads new push to ban HFC greenhouse gases

By John Parnell

Damaging greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) could be steadily phased out from 2014 if EU plans are agreed at the UN climate talks in Warsaw in November.

Yesterday in Bonn the bloc called for HFCs to be included in the Montreal Protocol process that eradicated ozone destructive CFCs. HFCs are used as a refrigerant, in many foams and as part of industrial processes.

They can warm the atmosphere thousands of times more than carbon dioxide and stay there for hundreds of years. To date little progress has been made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Although many nations including the USA have backed the idea previously, this is the first time a deadline for action has been suggested. The proposal was backed by New Zealand and Mexico during the same session.

“This is the first meeting where countries have been so specific about what they want,” Natasha Hurley of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) told RTCC from the sidelines of the meeting.

“The EU has made a very concrete statement that it is looking for a formal decision on HFCs at the Warsaw at the end of the year. This would send a signal to the Montreal Protocol that it should carry on with the HFC phasedown.”

Air conditioning is one of the major uses of HFCs (Source: Flickr/NiallKennedy)

The Montreal Protocol successfully phased out ozone depleting CFCs which were replaced by a number of chemicals including HFCs. Because it was set up to deal with the same industries as that use HFCs, most of the heavy lifting has been done and an amendment to the Protocol to add HFCs could trigger rapid action.

But while popular, support for the plan is not universal.

“There are some countries that have blocked HFCs from being dealt with in the Montreal Protocol since a phasedown was first suggested in 2009. India is very vocal as are some of the South American countries but for different reasons,” said Hurley.

India is under pressure from industry while South American concerns are usually about knowing that there will be funding available. China has been obstructive in the past but has been less strident in the past year or so,” she added.

Urgency

The latest round of UN climate talks are taking place in Bonn to discuss a proposed global emissions deal that could come into force from 2020.

The talks are in two strands with one focused on increasing pre-2020 greenhouse gas cuts. HFCs could provide a quick and simple way to take a chunk out of the gap in current emissions pledges and what scientists say is necessary to avoid more than 2°C of warming.

UNEP estimates that the gap is between 8 and 13 gigatonnes. “Momentum is building now and we expect that to continue throughout the year,” said Hurley.

“There’s a real enthusiasm for actions that can be done quickly and with minimal hassle. HFC phasedown is there for the taking. There’s no barriers other than political will.

“If they want to make inroads into the gigatone gap they need to start taking action now. It’s not we ought to talk about there being a gap, this year is the year for action,” she added.

Jorge Diéguez, regulatory affairs manager, DuPont Chemicals & Fluoroproducts EMEA told RTCC he was not quite as confident that a deal would be done.

“In my personal opinion I think it is a little ambitious to think that we could get a decision by the end of the year. China and India have been raising concerns consistently and I doubt they will change their mind in such a short space of time.”

“It’s a pity the knowledge of the Montreal Protocol is not being used. One wonders why two conventions under the United Nations cannot cooperate more closely. It is a waste of resources,” said Diéguez, who believes moving responsibility for HFCs away from the Kyoto Protocol would speed up emission reductions.

Diéguez also acknowledges that the chemical industry would stand to benefit from the phasedown of HFCs as replacements are developed. He stressed however that the broad range of uses means no single product would dominate and that the industry is lobbying for technology neutral legislation.

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  • BrentOz

    DuPont’s Jorge may well be correct that India and China will not quickly stand aside from their emphatically stated opposition to acknowledging the role the Montreal Protocol has played and could yet contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emission, but as Montreal Protocol observers will know, surprising progress has been made in the past to accelerate the phase out of HCFCs.

    There are grounds for hope, if not expectations that growing calls for consensus on the need to address HFCs will be heeded this year. Or maybe next, if the UNFCCC talks succeed in calling on the Montreal Protocol Parties to preserve the climate benefits of the CFC phase out by taking similar measures to control and reduce use and emissions of HFCs.

    However the extent to which the chemical companies responsible for causing the CFC/HCFC/HFC ozone and climate problems will benefit from the new range of attractively branded low Global Warming Potential patented synthetic alternatives they are attempting to bring to market is far from certain.

    No secret is being made of how expensive these new refrigerants are likely to be, there is little doubt they perform less efficiently than the chemicals they replace (or the well established natural refrigerant solutions of ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons), and concerns about highly toxic byproducts of combustion are not easily overcome.

    Ultimately it will be up to the market to choose the most efficient, cost effective and environmentally safe refrigeration and air-conditioning solutions. But regulators need to step up quickly to correct the mistakes of the past now driving a 10% p.a. increase in the most abundant HFC134a that threatens to erode the significant climate benefits acheived by the Montreal Protocol. Clear rules to prevent deceptively promoting substances with significant GWPs as “moderate” or even “low” GWP also need to be set.

    The Montreal Protocol ‘phase down’ amendment proposals are a good start, but there is a strong case to be made that a more ambitious ‘phase out’ of HFCs is environmentally imperative and technologically and commercially feasible.

  • BrentOz

    Chances of China contributing to consensus on adopting HFC amendment at 2012 Montreal Protocol talks may have improved significantly in wake of US – China Summit this weekend – http://www.trust.org/item/20130608211646-8tvyc