Of late, all eyes have been on Paris, which will host the upcoming Conference of the Parties (“COP”) for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (“UNFCC”) (and, since last Friday, for other tragic reasons). However, earlier this month, an important development in international efforts to combat climate change occurred in Dubai, which was host to the 27th Meeting of the Parties (“MOP”) of the Montreal Protocol.
At the Dubai MOP, which was held from 1-5 November, 2015, the Parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed to a “roadmap” for negotiating an amendment to the Protocol for the phase-down of Hydrofluorocarbons (“HFCs”). The goal is to adopt the amendment at their next meeting, which is scheduled to take place towards the end of 2016. Once implemented, this agreement will contribute significantly to the reduction of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases (“GHGs”).
HFCs were introduced as substitutes for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (“CFCs”), and their use has been growing rapidly since the ratification of the Montreal Protocol. They are used in a variety of applications, particularly as fluids used in refrigeration and air conditioning.
HFCs are not ozone-depleting, which made them a particularly attractive alternative to CFCs. However, they are extremely powerful greenhouse gases that contribute significantly to climate change both in the rise of their use and their intensity. Indeed, HFCs can be thousands of times more potent than CO2, according to their “global-warming potential” (a measure of the heat-trapping effect of a greenhouse gas over time relative to that of CO2). This means they both trap more heat and have longer atmospheric lifetime than a comparable mass of CO2 (though HFCs make up a tiny fraction of global GHG emissions and are dwarfed by Co2 emissions).
The US EPA has already moved to restrict the use of HFCs given the rise in their use and their potency. The EU has also recently been taking aggressive action aimed at reducing fluorinated gases such as HFCs. Canada has also had a stated commitment of reducing HFC emissions.
The Montreal Protocol Parties’ decision to move towards limiting HFCs emerges from an interesting tension between multilateral environmental agreements. The aim of the Montreal Protocol is to control and ultimately eliminate global emissions of substances that deplete the ozone. The promotion of HFCs, insofar as it has led to decreased reliance on CFCs, has contributed to the accomplishment of this goal. But promoting their use has contemporaneously contributed to a rise in the use of products that produce climate-harming GHG emissions, undermining international commitments under the UNFCCC and Kyoto protocol to reduce such emissions.
Of course, targeted reduction of HFCs cannot replace, or remove focus away from, reducing CO2 emissions, which, by volume, are by far the bigger problem as far as climate change is concerned. (Somewhat ironically, it is anticipated that CO2-based technologies will ultimately replace some refrigeration technologies that currently rely on HFCs.) But the forthcoming HFC phase-down agreement is, nevertheless, a promising development. The fact that the Montreal Protocol can adapt to serve, if indirectly, the goal of overcoming climate change — a purpose for which it was not designed — perhaps offers hope for the ongoing role of international environmental law in the battle against climate change.