President Obama and new Chinese President Xi Jinping emerged from a California retreat this weekend with an agreement to ratchet down greenhouse gases from refrigerants that environmentalists are hailing as a major step in addressing climate change.
While no targets were set or legally binding measures taken, the two leaders vowed to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The compounds, widely used in refrigerators and air conditioners, currently make up 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions but are considered the fastest-growing climate pollutant in both the United States and China, expected to rise to 19 percent by 2050 if left unchecked.
In recent years, China, along with India and Brazil, has blocked efforts through the landmark Montreal Protocol treaty to replace HFCs with low-carbon alternatives. A White House press statement said the United States and China will, for the first time, "work together and with other countries to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons," along with other multilateral efforts.
"This is a very big deal," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "For years, China and India have resisted efforts to phase down these potent climate pollutants. This pact opens the door for an agreement this year under the Montreal Protocol that could make a big dent in helping address climate change."
Longtime advocates of curbing the "super greenhouse gas" also called the agreement a positive sign of China's willingness to join a broader HFC effort led by the Federated States of Micronesia and other endangered low-lying island nations.
"The China-U.S. agreement on phasing down HFC under the Montreal Protocol will provide the single biggest, fastest, cheapest and most secure piece of climate mitigation available to the world through 2020," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
He estimated the deal will avoid the equivalent of nearly 100 billion metric tons of CO2 by 2050 and will avoid 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century, while also boosting broader efforts to reduce other short-lived climate pollutants like methane and soot.
'A glimmer of hope'
The agreement comes as diplomats from nearly 200 countries wrap up another round of climate change negotiations. Under an agreement reached two years ago, nations have promised to develop a new global agreement by 2015 that would take effect by 2020 and legally bind all nations -- including the United States and China -- to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The contours of that deal are still taking shape with fierce debate still over how far different nations should go in making cuts. But U.N. leaders and climate analysts yesterday said they believe the U.S.-China agreement on HFCs sets the foundation for a serious deal in 2015.
U.N. Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, for one, said the Obama-Xi weekend retreat in Rancho Mirage could signal a "new and perhaps transformational chapter in international cooperation on climate change."
He said that the important forthcoming work on HFCs needs to be complemented by carbon cuts if the world hopes to hold global temperatures below a 2-degree-Celsius rise over preindustrial levels. But, Steiner added, "The signal from China and the United States in respect to HFCs is important as both a confidence builder and if it paves the way to a universal agreement involving all nations that reflects the science of where all emissions are today and where they need to be by a series of deadlines beginning with 2020."
Ambassador Asterio Takesy of the Federated States of Micronesia said, "The agreement between President Obama and PRC President Xi last Saturday to wind down production and use of hydroflurocarbons gives us atoll islanders a glimmer of hope that we will not be the first climate change refugees in this century and beyond."
"This is a huge demonstration of political will that is so sorely needed in the stalled international climate change negotiations," he asserted.
A momentum builder?
Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the deal could be a "key turning point in global climate change protection, with the world's two largest emitters finally working together to take decisive, historic action." He predicted that the deal will "create tremendous momentum" for cutting all greenhouse gas emissions.
Those skeptical that the U.N. climate change regime will ever be accomplished, however, said viewing the HFC deal as a portent of a major 2015 agreement is a stretch. Frank Maisano, an energy expert at Bracewell & Giuliani, called the agreement significant. But, he argued, the U.N. talks are a dead end, and environmentalists are drawing hopeful conclusions with little evidence.
"They're looking for momentum wherever they can get it, that's the bottom line," Maisano said.
Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, nations agreed to combat the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), ingredients used in refrigerants and solvents and in industrial processes. And while most nations successfully reduced or eliminated those ozone-depleting gas, HFCs -- less corrosive to the ozone but packing a punch of 10,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide -- took their place.
For years, China has benefited from producing HCFCs by taking advantage of a U.N. system that allows wealthy nations to buy low-carbon credits from developing countries. By making the substances -- in excess, some have charged -- and then destroying the HFC climate pollutants that are the byproduct of the process, Chinese companies have earned millions of dollars in extra carbon offset credits.
While China has resisted an amendment to the Montreal Protocol pushed by Micronesia, the United States and Mexico to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, there have been earlier signs of change. In April, the Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund provided $385 million to help China retire its entire production capacity for HCFCs over the next 17 years (ClimateWire, April 25).