PORT GHALIB, Egypt, November 11, 2009 (ENS) – Two separate proposals to expand the Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Substances to include the gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, HFCs, have failed to win the approval of delegates at the treaty’s annual Meeting of Parties.
These “super” potent greenhouse gases warm the climate but are not as damaging to the Earth’s ozone layer as other gases they are used to replace.
More than 400 participants attended the Montreal Protocol meeting, which concluded Sunday in the Red Sea town of Port Ghalib. They represented governments, UN agencies, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, academia, industry and the agricultural sector.
Governments could not reach consensus on the high profile issue of whether this group of gases now controlled under the international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, might be better controlled and phased-down under the ozone treaty, which has achieved universal ratification.
Delegates generally felt that further climate action under the ozone layer treaty must wait until after the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.
There, governments are expected to finalize an agreement to further limit six greenhouse gases, including HFCs, that are trapping the Sun’s heat close to the Earth, raising the planetary temperature.
HFCs, used for refrigeration and air conditioning, are known as super greenhouse gases because the combined effect of their soaring use and high global warming potential could undercut the benefits expected from the reduction of other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
HFCs are used as alternatives to several ozone depleting substances being phased out under the Montreal Protocol.
These ozone depleters – chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, HCFCs – also used for refrigeration and air conditioning, both deplete the stratospheric ozone layer that protects the Earth from the damaging effects of the Sun’s ultraviolet rays.
In Egypt, two groups of countries made separate proposals to include HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.
The Federated States of Micronesia and Mauritius, both small island nations vulnerable to climate change, were first to present their proposal on HFCs.
While a majority of government delegates did not approve this proposal, it did win support in the form of an official declaration on phasing down HFCs issued by 41 countries at the conclusion of the high-level segment of the meeting Sunday night. This is expected to lead to an amendment to the treaty next year.
“The declaration sends a clear signal to the world that the super greenhouse gases we are targeting will soon be gone,” said Antonio Oposa Jr., delegate from Micronesia.
“We would have preferred even faster action to amend the treaty this year, but many of our fellow parties wanted more time to study climate-friendly alternatives and we respect that,” Oposa said. “A bit more time on the front end will help us at the back end when we’re implementing the HFC phase-out, and keep the treaty’s record of perfect compliance with our commitments.”
A second proposal to “phase-down” HFCs was presented by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Speaking for the United States, Daniel Reifsnyder, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, called the proposal “historic.”
“Never in my experience have the three governments of our North American continent joined together to propose global action to address a common threat to our environment,” said Reifsnyder, who has worked with the Bureau since 1984 under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
From 1989 to 2006, Reifsnyder helped shape the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and co-chaired its Financial Task Team. He was part of the U.S. delegation in negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“It is also historic in that we are seeking to address a threat that has not yet fully materialized,” he told fellow delegates in Egypt last week. “Global use of HFCs today is still relatively small. Our concern is that, unless we begin to act, use will increase significantly in the coming years – and it is this increased use that will pose a problem for the environment.”
The North American countries acknowledged the delegates from Mauritius and the Federated States of Micronesia and those who supported their proposal to amend the Montreal Protocol to include the production and consumption of HFCs. Reifsnyder said, “They were the first to propose concrete action to address this problem, and their timely proposal has made it possible for this body – this year – to act.”
Reifsnyder said passage of an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to include HFCs would “send a crucial message to our colleagues who will assemble in Copenhagen in a few weeks time.”
“We have an opportunity to tell them that the Montreal Protocol that has served us so well in the past is ready to contribute further – that the Montreal Protocol is ready to enlist the powerful framework that has demonstrated success in protecting the ozone layer to help meet the threat to our global climate system,” the American negotiator said.
“Agreement here among the Montreal Protocol Parties would send a vital positive message on the eve of the Copenhagen meeting that significant, collective global action is achievable to come to grips with environmental problems that threaten us all,” he said.
Some have asked why anyone is proposing to take action under an ozone treaty on a climate issue, Reifsnyder acknowledged.
“The answer is very simple,” he said. “The climate issue is very broad and very complex. In our view, not all of the solutions to the climate problem will arise in the climate arena. We must take advantage of the tools at our disposal – wherever they may be found – to address the climate problem.”
Yet, after five days of intense discussions, consensus could not be reached and the issue will now come before the UN climate conference in Copenhagen next month.
Still, progress was made on other issues at the Egypt meeting.
Marco Gonzalez, executive secretary of UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat said the meeting addressed “important and sensitive issues for developing countries, in particular those related to the future supply of pharmaceutical-grade chloroflurocarbons, or CFCs, and in terms of the issue of the environmentally sound management of banks and stockpiles of ozone-depleting substances.”
In 2010 the treaty will have totally phased out the use of CFCs with the exception of some limited exemptions for purposes such as metered dose inhalers used by asthmatics.
But there is concern over both the scale and size of stockpiled banks of CFCs held in old and retired equipment, and the potential for these gases to leak out into the atmosphere if not safely and swiftly destroyed.
Mobilizing more funds to assist in the export and destruction from developing countries with low amounts of CFCs to countries with the necessary destruction facilities will be part of a special discussion in 2010.
Under the Montreal Protocol, the ozone-damaging chemical methyl bromide is controlled for purposes such as fumigating soils, but it is not regulated as a pest-controller for international shipments of commodities, including in wooden pallets.
There has been concern that the use of methyl bromide is rising for these uncontrolled purposes and contributing to depletion of the ozone layer.
The meeting requested the Montreal Protocol’s experts to report back next year on alternatives to methyl bromide for quarantine and pre-shipment uses, including for sawn timber and wood packaging material, grains and similar foods.
The meeting accepted a decision encouraging governments to consider adopting national laws to promote a transition to methyl bromide alternatives.