WASHINGTON, DC, June 10, 2013 (ENS) – For the first time, the United States and China will work together and with other countries to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, potent greenhouse gases used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and industrial applications.
At their meeting on Saturday in California, President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping agreed to take this step to moderate global climate change.
The agreement states, “Regarding HFCs, the United States and China 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 [the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change] and its Kyoto Protocol provisions for accounting and reporting of emissions.”
HFCs are beginning to replace another group of chemicals known as HCFCs that damage the ozone layer – the thin gaseous layer around the Earth that filters out deadly levels of ultraviolet light from the Sun.
Because they do not deplete the ozone layer, their use is growing as replacements for ozone-depleting substances that are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty with nearly universal membership among governments.
Scientists say that if nothing is done HFC emissions could grow to nearly 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, posing a serious climate concern.
During their meeting, Presidents Obama and Xi discussed climate change and agreed that they have “a strong joint interest” in addressing climate “from a lot of perspectives, including sustainable economic growth,” National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters on Saturday.
Donilon said that soon after he became Secretary of State on February 1, John Kerry set up a working group on climate to develop practical steps that the U.S. and China could take together to address climate change.
“As a result of the working group’s efforts, there was ready today an example of practical cooperation,” said Donilon. “It was … just ready for the two Presidents to agree to today to work together to address the impact of the hydrofluorocarbons on climate change.”
“The U.S. has been leading the effort to use a Montreal Protocol process to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs. More than 100 countries support the effort, and today, importantly, China agreed to work with the U.S. on this initiative,” said Donilon.
The United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, which manages the Montreal Protocol, estimates that by 2050 HFC emissions are likely to be equivalent to 3.5 to 8.8 gigatonnes, Gt, of carbon dioxide.
That is comparable to total current global emissions from transport, estimated at 6-7 Gt annually according to a UNEP-coordinated study from 2011.
UNEP chief Achim Steiner was encouraged by the U.S.-China agreement on HFCs.
“Along with a variety of recent signals from several key countries including China and the United States, this one on HFCs by these two key economies is welcome as the world moves towards a universal UN treaty on climate change by 2015. Certainly allowing the market for HFCs to grow will only aggravate the challenge of combating climate change,” said Steiner.
“The signal from China and the United States in respect to HFCs is important as both a confidence builder and if it paves the way to a universal agreement involving all nations that reflects the science of where all emissions are today and where they need to be by a series of deadlines beginning with 2020,” Steiner said.
Environmentalists were encouraged by the agreement.
“This is a significant step forward for the two nations that are the largest emitters of greenhouses gases. It’s the kind of international cooperation we’ll need to drive a comprehensive solution,” said Fred Krupp, president of the U.S. nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund.
“Climate change will have huge economic costs on both sides of the Pacific, and the solutions to climate change – like leadership on clean energy technologies – offer enormous economic benefits,” said Krupp. “These two leaders know it is in their national interests to move forward.”
David Doniger, policy director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote, “A phase-down agreement could cut out HFCs with a heat-trapping punch equivalent to as much as 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the coming decades. That’s equal to eliminating two years worth of all global greenhouse gas emissions.”
At their most recent meeting in May in Kiruna, Sweden, Arctic Council ministers from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States called for taking action “as soon as possible” to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol and for reducing black carbon and methane emissions in the Arctic.
Noting that such actions “could slow global and Arctic climate change and have positive effects on health,” the ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, spoke in support of fast action to reduce HFCs and the other climate pollutants to slow the accelerating rate of climate change and protect the planet’s most vulnerable regions and peoples.
“The Arctic Council’s Kiruna Declaration is major step forward and just in time,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
Based in Washington, DC, the institute provides the secretariat to the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement, a network of over 4,000 environmental professionals in 150 countries.
Zealke said, “Protecting regions like the Arctic and Himalayas that are warming at more than twice the global average requires immediate, targeted action against the climate pollutants causing massive harm right now. Saving these regions and the peoples who live there cannot wait. It will be too late to save the Arctic once it’s melted.”
The Montreal Protocol was established in 1987 to facilitate a global approach to combat depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. Every country in the world is a party to the Protocol, and it has successfully phased out or is in the process of phasing out several key classes of chemicals, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and halons. The transitions out of CFCs and HCFCs provide major ozone layer protection benefits, but the unintended consequence is the rapid current and projected future growth of climate-damaging HFCs.
For the past four years, the United States, Canada, and Mexico have proposed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs. The amendment would gradually reduce consumption and production and control byproduct emissions of HFCs in all countries, and require reporting in these areas.
The amendment includes a financial assistance component for countries that can already access the Protocol’s Multilateral Fund, and leaves unchanged the reporting and accounting provisions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol on HFC emissions.