US and China HFC deal needs climate health warning

By Ed King

News that the US and China have agreed to cooperate on cutting production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) has been widely praised around the world.

Given today’s warning from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the world is on course to warm between 3.6-5.3°C and recent reports of carbon dioxide (CO2) levels hitting the 400 parts per million target, any steps to ‘take action’ are welcome.

HFCs, used in fridges and air conditioning, are potent heat-trapping gases that left unchecked could grow to 20% of CO2 emissions by 2050.

The phase-down will take place under the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty that successfully addressed depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer.

CO2 is credited with 55-60% of radiative forcing, warming the planet. The other 40-45% is due to gases such as soot, HFCs and methane (CCAC)

Jointly responsible for 43% of annual carbon emissions, the fact that the US and China are working together on the climate is impressive, a move that IEA chief economist Fatih Birol told the FT gave him a “glimmer of hope”.

It is a practical and sensible short-term solution to an evident problem, and it may demonstrate that both President Obama and President Xi are committed to politically feasible ways of addressing climate change.

But this welcome announcement from the ‘G2’ also comes with a health warning.

This is not a historic climate deal that will prevent the world from smashing 2°C warming, nor will it lay the foundations for long-term low carbon growth.

The agreement does allow both countries to say they are taking dynamic and firm action to address the causes of climate change – which isn’t strictly accurate – and leverage control at UN talks crying out for national leadership.

“In terms of short-lived pollutants, we believe there may be some issues when you distract attention from the main problem. This needs action,” Ecuador negotiator Daniel Ortega told RTCC in February.

“What is important is that we don’t re-invent the wheel. There are elements from Kyoto that are important for some countries, like the legal bindingness and the ambitions.”

Rising concerns

The IEA report revealed US emissions are back to mid-1990s levels, largely due to its transition from coal to shale gas, but also down to more electricity being generated by renewables, and more fuel efficient vehicles.

China’s are still rising, although its 300 megatonne increase in carbon dioxide releases in 2012 was “one of the lowest it has seen in a decade”, according to the IEA (experts in finding silver linings in dark holes).

Traditionally the US excuse has been that other major emitters (like China) were not taking action.

In turn China pleaded poverty, a line that may have worked a decade ago, but not when your per capita emissions are equal to the European Union’s.

Its traditional links with the Group of 77 are strained – many of its members want deeper carbon cuts across the board – a move China is unwilling (or unable) to contemplate.

Both Obama and Xi seem to recognise the need for action. But critically, neither country is keen on accepting top-down binding emission targets, for fear they could hit economic growth.

As former UN climate chief Michael Zammit Cutajar noted last year: “They do both have a shared preference to not tie their hands with international treaties imposed from the top down.”

The ‘G2’ are in effect a coalition of the unwilling, basking in the knowledge that Russia’s blockheaded obstruction of UN negotiations this week and continued EU political weakness mean there is no other show in town.

That suits the US, whose diplomats have been actively pushing its ‘pledge and review’ proposal for the 2015 UN climate treaty, which should replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2020.

“From the EU’s point of view, it still sounded like something that would risk leaving us facing a gap in our ambition. Something we are facing already now until the year 2020,” the EU’s chief climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger told RTCC.

Above all, what the US-China agreement does is highlight how the EU has drifted steadily away from the position of climate leadership it held at the 2011 UN summit in Durban.

The Eurozone crisis, internal rows over carbon reduction targets and a potentially damaging solar trade war with China all contribute to a picture of a bloc struggling to find a clear voice.

This could be bad news for smaller climate vulnerable states, especially the Pacific Island nations, who have previously worked with the EU to push for higher and faster climate targets.

“It’s an important step by President Obama and President Xi, but it’s a baby step, and there are a lot of loopholes in this announcement. But it’s an opportunity for both leaders to start to act on climate change,” Greenpeace climate expert Martin Kaiser told RTCC from Bonn.

“The role of the EU will be whether it will be lowest common denominator on the crucial question on emission reduction targets, or the European Union can do its homework and really raise the level of ambition and give good examples for both the US and China.”

Some of a cynical nature have suggested the HFC deal came as a result of faltering talks over cyber-warfare, and both Obama and Xi felt they had to deliver something at the summit.

Whatever the veracity of those reports, which sound a little unfair, the real test will come when countries face up to the CO2 cuts required by science – as outlined in last year’s UNEP Emissions Gap Report.

Labelling any other agreements as ‘historic’ or ‘groundbreaking’ is simply misleading.

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