A proposal to curb some of the world's most potent heat-trapping gases by expanding a decades-old treaty appears to be turning heads.
With international attempts to broker major climate deals falling short, expanding the Montreal Protocol may represent the best shot at fighting rising temperatures, some analysts say. And overcoming one of the most formidable hurdles to this approach may be on the menu at the global warming summit in Cancun, Mexico.
The Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, was aimed at reining in aerosols and other pollutants that science indicated were boring a hole in the planet's ozone sheath. The widely praised treaty -- which all countries have signed -- has been heralded for slashing more than 95 percent of ozone-depleting substances in developed countries and more than half of those chemicals in developing countries.
Now, a proposal to add industrial refrigerants with formidable global warming potential onto the list of chemicals that countries would be required to phase out under the treaty is garnering significant interest. More than 90 countries ranging from Cambodia and Burkina Faso to Sweden and the United Kingdom signed onto a declaration earlier this month calling for adding hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, to the treaty. The United States also backs that move.
Whereas international climate talks have languished, the Montreal Protocol is successful because it is so "simple," said Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It doesn't work because it's some special sauce," he said.
"[The Montreal Protocol] dealt with an issue for which solutions were readily available, and those solutions were cheap on top of that," he said. "It was also put together in a world where a smaller set of countries with much more in common held a lot of the power."
Moreover, unlike the Kyoto Protocol and proposed climate treaties geared toward shrinking Earth's carbon footprint, the Montreal Protocol has broad support from industry and congressional Republicans. Measures to fight other non-CO2 gases like black carbon have won the support of Capitol Hill climate skeptics like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
Industry is also already taking action on HFCs -- yesterday 400 companies including Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unilever said they would begin phasing out the refrigerants starting in 2015.
Advocates like Durwood Zaelke, president and founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, have long been making the case to look outside the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change process and move forward on slashing non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, but what is different now, he said, is the U.S. political dynamic.
"We're blocked on the central question of CO2 in the United States and will be for several years," Zaelke said. "That means that we will have an extremely difficult time joining an international treaty," he said. The Montreal Protocol, however, provides an option that could be "big, fast and effective."
Although HFCs are only present in the atmosphere in trace amounts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the chemicals are powerful heat-trapping gases thousands of times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
"If we eliminated it, it would be a very small contribution, but a very important one because we don't want it to grow," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
As countries move to comply with Montreal Protocol provisions and eliminate other ozone-depleting substances, industry -- especially in developing countries where there will be more growth in air conditioning and refrigeration demands as economies improve -- may rely more heavily on HFCs, she said. That is a problem, especially when there are cleaner options out there, Ekwurzel said.
The Montreal Protocol calls specifically for addressing the adverse effects of moving away from listed substances like chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, bolstering the legal argument for including HFCs in the treaty, said David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.
If HFCs continue to grow unchecked, by 2050 they could do as much climate damage as CFCs did at their peak levels more than 20 years ago, the Montreal Protocol's science assessment panel recently concluded.
But a trio of countries may stand in the way of slashing these HFC emissions. China, India and Brazil are holding firm to their opposition of incorporating HFCs into the treaty on the grounds that the Montreal Protocol is not a climate treaty.
Moreover, payments for curbing use of HFCs under the treaty would not be high enough, they say.
The Clean Development Mechanism, a system created under the Kyoto Protocol that allows developed countries to get credits for financing emissions-reduction projects in developing countries, offers a large sum for projects that curb some HFCs.
Until countries can get a better deal for cutting their use of the chemicals under the treaty, it may be more attractive to impede their progress, said Levi. If the European Union leaves some of these gases out of its carbon market, that would create additional incentives to make a deal under the Montreal Protocol, he said.
Making the Clean Development Mechanism option less attractive may also be in the offing at Cancun.
Negotiators will consider a specific proposal to reduce HFC project payments by about fivefold, Doniger said. In a recent paper, his group pushed to drive down the payment even further.
Ultimately, progress on this issue "isn't going to happen tomorrow," said Steve Seidel, vice president for policy analysis for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "They'll take the issue back up after additional study at next year's [Montreal Protocol] conference where, hopefully, there will be a consensus on moving forward."
"I think we'll have more clarity ... in the next year or so, at which point I think we might be able to get more progress on the Montreal Protocol," Levi said. "This isn't a done deal."