This week China budged. Depending on one’s perspective, it wasn’t much of a concession. The country agreed, in essence, to do what it and everybody else had already agreed to do back in 2007: accelerate the phasing out of a common class of ozone-eating refrigerants that double as powerful greenhouse gases. But rather than haggling over prices each step of the way, China made it simple and cut a single deal — worth up to US$385 million — to eliminate hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) between now and 2030.
Reached under the auspices of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the agreement would lock in extra protection for stratospheric ozone as well as greenhouse-gas reductions equivalent to 8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. That is more than double the annual carbon emissions of the European Union. But more importantly, observers hope that it might mark a new beginning in the long-running bureaucratic battle over how to manage the chemicals that replace HCFCs: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are ozone friendly but remain potent trappers of heat. In particular, environmental advocates — and a solid majority of countries — hope that China will finally get behind a proposal to shift management of HFCs from the United Nations climate convention, where they now reside, to the Montreal Protocol.
“It’s really too early to tell, but this could be a signal they are going to take a better position with regard to phasing out HFCs,” says Mark Roberts, senior legal counsel for the Environmental Investigation Agency based in Stow, Massachusetts. Roberts notes that China also agreed to manage ongoing HCFC production as well as associated by-products “in accordance with best practices to minimize associated climate impacts”.
The timing is uncanny. In recent years a small cohort of companies in China and a handful of other countries have collected billions of dollars to destroy HFC-23 — a by-product of certain HCFC production that is 14,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas — in exchange for dubious credits under the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows wealthy countries to offset their emissions in developing countries. In just four days, at midnight on 30 April, the European Union will turn off the spigot. Many feared that the companies would respond with the cheapest solution: vent into the atmosphere. China now seems to be suggesting that won’t happen.
The issue with HFC-23 problem was first highlighted in Nature in 2007. HCFCs are commonly used as refrigerants as well as in solvents and flame-retardant foams. But one type of HCFC serves as a feedstock for Teflon and plastics, and its production results in HFC-23. Because of its potency, the chemical fetches an extraordinarily high price on the carbon market — 75 times the actual cost of destruction, according to one earlier estimate. As a result, the destruction of the by-product wound up being more profitable than the production of the product. New HFC projects were banned in 2007, but the old ones continued to collect. As of 1 April, according to the latest tally by the United Nations Environment Programme’s Risoe Centre (see ‘Carbon offsets issued’), roughly 39% of the credits issued since the beginning of the programme have gone to HFC-23 projects.
Environmentalists have long suspected that this flow of money through the climate convention impeded progress in transferring the entire class of HFCs to the Montreal Protocol. From a bureaucratic perspective, it also represents mission creep for the Montreal Protocol to tackle greenhouse gases that do not damage the ozone layer. But the 2007 decision to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs was geared primarily towards climate benefits. Moreover, Montreal has done more to reduce greenhouse gases inadvertently than the Kyoto Protocol did intentionally. And given the ongoing difficulties within the climate convention — as well as studies underscoring the climatic gains to be had by targeting pollutants other than carbon dioxide — a solid majority of countries have supported the move.
The subject will be at the top of the agenda, once again, when countries convene in Bangkok in June. Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an advocacy group in Washington DC, notes that China’s decision came less than two weeks after the United States and China released a joint statement on climate change. The United States fully backs moving HFCs to the Montreal Protocol, and Zaelke is hopeful that China will now follow suit. “I don’t think China is just teasing the world with this new plan,” he says.