Last week has been of great significance in the fight against climate change. The Paris Agreement received the required number of ratifications, and will become international law from November 4, three days before the annual climate change conference begins in Marrakech. Countries will get down to finalising the rules and institutions that will govern its implementation.
In Montreal on Thursday, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) carved out an agreement to curb the rise of emissions from international aviation after 2020, despite reservations from some countries, including India. The deal, approved by all 191 members, asks countries to offset, voluntarily to begin with, any rise in their aviation emissions through activities like planting of trees or funding activities that reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. As of now, only 65 countries have decided to join the programme that will initially run from 2020 to 2026, but most observers have welcomed it as a good beginning.
And from today, countries have gathered in Kigali, Rwanda, to plug another hole of greenhouse gas emissions. They likely will, a week later, finalise an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to enable this 1989 ozone-protecting agreement to phase out the use of Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a class of gases that are several thousand times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
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HFCs, used mainly in the coolant and refrigerant industry, are not ozone-depleting, and are hence not covered by the Montreal Protocol. In fact, HFCs replaced Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which the Montreal Protocol phased out because they were destroying the ozone layer. But HFCs are very potent greenhouse gases, and unlike other GHGs that are being dealt with by the Paris Agreement, HFCs are sought to be eliminated through the Montreal Protocol as well.
It is estimated that a phasing out of HFCs by 2050 will prevent a 0.5-degree rise in global temperatures by the end of this century. There is near unanimity both on the need to amend the Protocol to include HFCs, and on the 2050 target for completing the job. There is also no disagreement that developed countries, which are both the bigger producers and bigger consumers of HFCs, have to begin phasing them out earlier. Differences exist in the details, and four proposals are on the table — put forward by India, the US (North America), European Union, and the Small Island Countries.
India wants developing countries like itself to begin the phase-out only from 2031, while promising to reduce their HFC production and consumption to 15% of what it would be in the ‘baseline year’ of 2028-30 (average of the figures in each of these years), by the year 2050. But it wants the developed countries to begin the phase-out this year itself, and completely eliminate the production and consumption of HFCs by 2035.
The US wants developed countries to begin the phase-out from 2019, and reach just 15% of the baseline year (2011-13) by 2036. The EU wants the baseline year for developed countries to be 2015-16, and wants them to eliminate 85% of the baseline HFC production and consumption by 2034.
Both the US and EU want developing countries to begin by 2019, or latest by 2021, and eliminate 85%-90% by 2046. There are supposed to be interim targets as well — the “phase-down schedule” — and those constitute further points of disagreement.
Developing countries seek to give their industry adequate time to discover and adapt to new technologies that would enable them to use HFC substitutes. They are also seeking multilateral financing to support the shift to newer alternatives, and want their industry to be given full conversion costs, as well as the cost of a second conversion in cases where a transitional technology has to be deployed.
Despite the differences going into Kigali, however, almost everyone is sure that it will deliver a positive outcome. “There is no reason why we should not have an agreement in Kigali. Differences over HFCs are very small compared to what we were faced with in the climate change negotiations. I think there will be a compromise solution that everyone will be happy with,” Ajay Mathur, director general of The Energy and Resources Institute, said.
The important thing for India, Mathur said, is to protect its domestic industry. “That is the reason we want our phase-down to begin later. But during the intermediate period, from now to 2030 or so, we can also try and shift to HFCs that have lower global warming potential. We would then have already started taking action on reducing HFC emissions without having to phase them out from an early period. There will be some costs to the industry, but calculations show it won’t be backbreaking,” Mathur said.
The Kigali meeting is expected to add momentum to the fight against climate change. Once the HFC amendment is approved, the world will be left with just one more climate change hole to plug, that of emissions from international shipping. Like international aviation, international shipping emissions are not covered under the Paris Agreement because these emissions cannot be attributed to any specific country.
International shipping accounts for 2.7% of global GHGs, more than international aviation that contributes 1.9%. The sector has had a mandatory carbon dioxide reduction plan for individual ships since 2013. The demand now is to cap and curb the overall emissions from the entire sector. Later this month, member countries of the International Maritime Organisation are likely to establish a global carbon dioxide data collection system for ships — the first step in that direction.