Of late, all eyes have been on Paris, which will host the
upcoming Conference of the Parties ("COP") for the UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change ("UNFCC") (and,
since last Friday, for other tragic reasons). However, earlier this
month, an important development in international efforts to
combat climate change occurred in Dubai, which was
host to the 27th Meeting of the Parties ("MOP")
of the Montreal Protocol.
At the Dubai MOP, which was held from 1-5 November, 2015,
the Parties to the Montreal Protocol agreed to a "roadmap" for negotiating an amendment
to the Protocol for the phase-down of Hydrofluorocarbons
("HFCs"). The goal is to adopt the amendment at their
next meeting, which is scheduled to take place towards the end
of 2016. One implemented, this agreement will contribute
significantly to the reduction of climate change-inducing
greenhouse gases ("GHGs").
HFCs were introduced as substitutes for ozone-depleting
chlorofluorocarbons ("CFCs"), and their use has been
growing rapidly since the ratification of the Montreal Protocol.
They are used in a variety of applications, particularly as fluids
used in refrigeration and air conditioning.
HFCs are not ozone-depleting, which made them a particularly
attractive alternative to CFCs. However, they are extremely
powerful greenhouse gases that contribute significantly to climate
change both in the rise of their use and their intensity. Indeed,
HFCs can be
thousands of times more potent than CO2, according to their
"global-warming potential" (a measure of the
heat-trapping effect of a greenhouse gas over time relative to that
of CO2). This means they both trap more heat and have longer
atmospheric lifetime than a comparable mass of CO2 (though
HFCs make up a tiny fraction of global GHG emissions and are
dwarfed by Co2 emissions).
The Montreal Protocol Parties' decision to move towards
limiting HFCs emerges from an interesting tension between
multilateral environmental agreements. The aim of the Montreal
Protocol is to control and ultimately eliminate global emissions of
substances that deplete the ozone. The promotion of HFCs, insofar
as it has led to decreased reliance on CFCs, has contributed to the
accomplishment of this goal. But promoting their use has
contemporaneously contributed to a rise in the use of
climate-harming GHG emissions.
Of course, targeted reduction of HFCs cannot replace, or remove
focus away from, reducing CO2 emissions, which, by volume, are by
far the bigger problem. (Somewhat ironically, it is anticipated
CO2-based technologies will ultimately replace some
refrigeration technologies that currently rely on HFCs.) But the
forthcoming HFC phase-down agreement is, nevertheless, a promising
development. The fact that the Montreal Protocol can adapt to
serve, if indirectly, the goal of overcoming climate
change — a purpose for which it was not designed
— perhaps offers hope for the ongoing role of
international environmental law in the battle against climate
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