Global Deal to Cut HFCs Near ‘Finish Line,' EPA Says

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By Ben Remaly

July 19 — The head of the Environmental Protection Agency July 19 said she expects an amendment will be passed this year under the Montreal Protocol for a global phase down of hydrofluorocarbons—short-lived but extremely potent greenhouse gases.

“We are making tremendous progress, which is what gives me great confidence that this will get over the finish line,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Bloomberg BNA in an interview.

We do expect the parties “will be delivering an amendment this year,” under which nearly 200 countries would agree to reductions, McCarthy said.

The EPA leader said there have been clear signs of progress at meetings to cut HFCs under the Montreal Protocol now underway in Vienna; McCarthy will be leading the U.S. delegation there later this week. HFCs were developed as an alternative to hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which deplete the ozone layer.

Montreal Protocol negotiations began in Vienna on July 15 and conclude with high level talks known as the Extraordinary Meeting of the Parties on July 22-23.

“Just over the last few days there's an agreement that all of the fundamental issues … have been successfully addressed in a way that will allow us to get to amendment text” ahead of the 28th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol slated for Rwanda in October, McCarthy said.

“Vienna is the test” of whether an amendment gets passed, said Durwood Zaelke, founder and president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, who has participated in the negotiations. He said the goal is to have “narrowed down issues to a manageable set” before the Rwanda meetings.

The EPA's McCarthy said once an agreement is reached in principle, developed and developing countries “can turn to the nitty- gritty of the amendment itself”—issues ranging from finance to help developing nations transition to alternatives to the baseline from which reductions would be made.

All 197 parties of the Montreal Protocol agreed in Dubai in November 2015 to control HFCs, and the U.S. and many other countries are pushing to agree on an amendment finalizing a phasedown at the Rwanda meetings.

Amendments Under Consideration

Currently on the table are four different amendment proposals submitted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico (the North America proposal); the European Union; India and several Pacific Island states.

These proposals differ on emission freeze dates—essentially when they would peak and begin to decline—as well as reductions schedules, finances, and the differing variations of HFC compounds to be cut. All of the proposals call for cutting at least 19 types of HFCs.

The first phase of the meetings that ran July 15-17 concluded with an agreement on key “challenges and solutions,” including assurances of payments by industrialized countries for developing countries to make the switch, David Doniger, director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a July 17 blog post.

HFCs were originally seen as an alternative to ozone-layer-depleting gases, which were to be phased down under the Protocol. HFCs do not have nearly as large an ozone depleting effect yet are a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential that can be 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Ridding the world of HFCs could avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of warming, according to the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics journal.

What's Being Phased Down?

The four amendment proposals agree on a list of 19 HFCs that should be phased down, each with a global warming potential between 12 and 14,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Pacific Island states' amendment differs from the rest as it calls for the phasedown of three additional hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) that are essentially a form of HFCs, said Nathan Borgford-Parnell, staff attorney at IGSD. HFOs have a much lower global warming potential than the other HFCs. Pacific Island states, arguably the nations most threatened by rising sea levels related to climate change, have included the HFOs in their proposal. The potential mitigation of HFCs is projected to decrease sea-level rise by 13 percent by the year 2100.

The Pacific Island states' proposal would require developed and developing countries alike to reduce HFCs but developing nations would be given additional years to do so.

If an amendment is agreed to by the parties in the fall, it could still be subject to changes in the years ahead. As Borgford-Parnell points out, the Montreal Protocol entered into force in 1989, began as a phasedown of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and has been revised eight times since.

Final Target Dates

All four proposals now on the table for cutting HFCs differentiate between developing countries, known as Article 5 parties, and industrialized countries, known as non-Article 5 parties. The countries within the EU, as well as the U.S. and Canada, are among the developed countries that submitted proposals. Those countries are expected to lead the way on global efforts to cut HFCs, with earlier freeze dates and more emphasis on creating and commercializing HFC alternatives. They also propose contributions to a multilateral fund to help developing nations with the costs of transitioning to HFC alternatives.

The final target date for the phase down of HFCs varies as well, according to the four proposals. North America, the EU, India and Pacific Island states are proposing 2036, 2034, 2035 and 2033 respectively as deadlines for developed countries and 2046, 2040, 2050, and 2040 respectively for developing countries.

Baselines

The four proposed amendments differentiate with varying baselines of HFC production and consumption as well as the schedule in which they are phased down. The U.S., Canada and Mexico, in the North America proposal, want to use 2011-2013 averages of HFC production and consumption as the baseline for developing countries.

India's proposed baseline, an outlier from the rest, would use the years 2028-2030 as the baseline. In effect, India's baseline would allow developing nations' emissions of HFCs to continue to rise for a decade before they could start to decline.

India is likely suggesting a 2031 freeze date because it coincides with the expiration of HFO patents, an alternative to HFCs, expiring that same year, said Borgford-Parnell.

Freeze Dates

Three proposals suggest freeze dates for HFC emissions for developing countries ranging between 2019 and 2021. However, India's proposal would not start a phasedown for developing countries until 2031.

Issues countries had with costs of licensing patents were largely solved in the first phase of the Vienna meetings after additional research was presented and countries were reassured these costs would be covered through the multilateral fund, the NRDC's Doniger wrote in a July 11 blog post.

Doniger says there is a growing consensus that it would make less sense for India and other countries to continue to use outdated technology while producing and consuming HFCs—essentially leaving it “stuck in a technological backwater.”

Montreal Protocol

Zaelke said the Montreal Protocol is “the only thing that's fast enough” to properly phase out HFCs. Zaelke said he is hopeful, but cautioned, “nothing is smooth or easy at the international level.”

In October, the EPA issued a proposed rule (RIN:2060-AS51) that would expand Section 608 of the Clean Air Act to prohibit the deliberate venting, release or disposal of HFCs or other non-ozone-depleting substitute refrigerants when servicing or disposing of air conditioning and refrigeration equipment.

That regulatory action followed a similar EPA effort (RIN:2060-AS18) to phase out the use of HFCs in aerosols, foam blowing, motor vehicle air conditioning, retail food refrigeration and vending machines.

The EPA also announced plans to start new rulemaking under its Significant New Alternatives Program (SNAP) that would render certain high global warming potential HFCs unacceptable as alternatives. It would approve several new climate-friendly alternatives.

McCarthy said that the steps the EPA has taken already have “effectively driven domestic action that is putting the U.S. in a leadership position. We fully expect that with the actions we've already taken, that we'll be able to meet the reductions that the international community will be embracing.”

The EPA will need to review the amendment before determining whether it will have “to take further regulatory actions” to implement reductions in the U.S., she said.

Getting an amendment this year to cut HFCs would build on the progress to combat climate change made in Paris in December, McCarthy said. There, nearly 200 nations agreed to an accord under which, for the first time, developed and developing nations alike are to address climate change.

“We encourage other countries to collaborate with us in another great step forward after Paris to meet our commitment as a planet to protect our environment and our climate,” McCarthy said.

With assistance from Dean Scott in Washington.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Remaly in Washington at bremaly@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The proposed amendments are available from the countries of North America, the European Union, India and Pacific Island states.

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