By Rajendra Shende*
It was hotter than normal in Vienna on 22nd July when John Kerry Secretary of State of USA arrived there. He flew straight from international meeting with 45 countries on terrorism related to ISIS in Washington DC to the meeting with more than 190 countries on exceptionally innovative negotiations related to climate change. That demonstrated the unflinching commitment of USA, to address, on top priority, two of the most defining challenges of our times, terrorism and climate change.
He termed the negotiations in Vienna as “ one of the single most important unitary steps that we could possibly take at this moment to stave off the worst impacts of climate change”. That step was about global phase-down of production and consumption of Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the six Green House Gases thousands of times more powerful in warming our earth than Carbon dioxide and now widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning including those used in nearly each and every car manufactured on the earth.
There is a strange similarity between ISIS and HFCs. Both are man made. World addressed the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but then that resulted into larger threat to the mankind namely ISIS. World successfully addressed the threat to stratospheric ozone layer by eliminating ozone depleting Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) but then that resulted in the threat of HFCs that contribute to global warming. Like ISIS, HFCs are growing in its threats. The use of HFCs are growing steeply at the rate more than 10 percent due to demand in refrigeration and air conditioning, particularly in room AC and in car ACs.
The negotiators in Vienna faced trying and simmering experience. Vienna was unusually hot. 2015 has already smashed the record for the hottest year since reporting began in 1850. Year 2016 is on the way to even break that record. Till June 2016 each month had been hotter than its precedent. The last decade was not only the hottest decade in the history but 15 of the last 16 years were the hottest on the global record.
Much hyped Paris climate agreement–yet to enter into force- pledges to take action to keep the global warming “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. The average global temperature rise, as per analysis of NASA of USA, for the first three months of 2016 was already 1.48°C, essentially equaling the 1.5°C. Though it has to be seen if this rise is a longer term trend or influenced by El Nino, the Earth is playing dangerous tango with the rising temperature, getting closer and closer to the target where world community does not want to reach.
If successful, the phase down in production and consumption of HFCs for which Kerry rushed to Vienna can cumulatively avoid the equivalent of more than 100 billion tons of CO2 emissions by 2050. More importantly, it promises to bring down the warming by 0.5 deg C by 2100, as per National Academy of Sciences and Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
But there are other magnetic reasons to focus on control of HFCs. Unlike carbon dioxide, the most widely emitted GHG that has atmospheric life of nearly 100 years; many of the HFCs have very short atmospheric life. Reducing emissions of these short-lived climate pollutants would effectively give early benefits and slow the near-term rate of climate change, a dire need in wake of inaction on Paris climate Agreement.
That itself is convincing reason to bring HFCs from Paris Climate Agreement to the most successful Montreal Protocol.
The Montreal Protocol effectively prevented the global burnout from UV rays penetrating the earth’s depleted stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out production and consumption of man–made chemicals responsible for depletion of the ozone layer. More than 98 percent of such chemicals have now been put in history books. World has succeeded in setting the ozone layer in spectacular recovery path as per joint scientific assessment report of World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released in 2014.
World policy makers are more impressed with the 2015 annual report of UNEP, which stated that the Montreal Protocol, through halting ozone layer depletion, could save an estimated $2.5 trillion in health care costs including those due to avoided skin cancers, cataracts and avoided damages to agriculture, fisheries, and materials. That enormously effective implementation of the Montreal Protocol and hands on experience in addressing the global environmental challenge prompted world’s flirting with HFCs.
Inspired by the success, USA, India, EU, Canada and Mexico along with small island countries have proposed unusual, uncommon but most welcome amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.
Unusual, because HFCs-unlike the controlled substances under the Montreal Protocol-are not ozone depleting chemicals. Uncommon, because the Montreal Protocol deals with the control that other international treaty namely Paris Climate Agreement has been mandated to exercise.
Getting HFCs controlled by one international treaty into the control regime of another global treaty is innovative initiative in international environmental diplomacy and it is succeeding. The details, however, are being negotiated by discussion on the amendment proposals made by the countries. India’s proposal stands out and has much wider support as it is most comprehensive in terms of the financial and technological needs of the developing countries and it preserves the principles of the Montreal Protocol including common but differentiated responsibility. The global agreement on amendment is expected by end of 2016.
The creative diplomatic solution is also being found to keep the effective role of both the Montreal and Paris accords in phasing down of HFCs consumption and production.
John Kerry stated in Vienna “The Paris agreement is not a silver bullet. It doesn’t guarantee we’re going to get where we need to go”. HFCs phase down under the Montreal Protocol, therefore seems to be the only show in the town at present that is better than any other options to keep the temperature rise below 2 deg C while pursuing the efforts to limit it to 1.5 deg C.
Flirting with HFCs is necessary to avoid dangerous tango with temperature.
*Rajendra Shende, an IIT-alumnus, is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre and former director of the UNEP. He can be contacted at [email protected]