Ozone layer treaty could tackle super polluting HFCs

The Montreal Protocol could deliver quick, cheap pollution cuts if India and Gulf states get on board

The growing use of HFC gases in air conditioners and refrigerators is increasing their contribution to global warming (Source: Flickr/NiallKennedy)

The growing use of HFC gases in air conditioners and refrigerators is increasing their contribution to global warming (Source: Flickr/NiallKennedy)

By Megan Darby

The Montreal Protocol is “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”, in the words of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

HFCs are super pollutants used in fridges, air conditioners and foam insulation. Thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, they could account for 19% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 if their manufacture continues unchecked.

Negotiators meeting in Paris this week will consider whether the Montreal Protocol could be used to nip the growing HFC industry in the bud. It is a topic that has been under discussion for a few years and is gathering momentum.

If implemented, it could make a significant contribution to efforts to tackle climate change. It faces resistance, however, from countries that produce HFCs or rely heavily on them for air conditioning.

Ozone layer

Ironically, the Montreal Protocol is largely responsible for the growth of the HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) industry in the first place.

The treaty was set up in the late 1980s to protect the ozone layer, mainly by banning CFCs used in fridges and aerosols. It has succeeded in phasing out 97% of ozone-depleting substances.

Later research showed this had also helped to prevent accelerated global warming, as CFCs were found to be powerful greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, in many cases CFCs were replaced by HFCs, which do not damage the ozone layer but are similarly effective at heating up the planet.

HFCs are classed as short-lived climate pollutants, with their warming effect lasting on average for 15 years. This is long enough to have an impact on emissions targets.

Unilateral actions

At the moment, HFCs account for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. A UN coalition on short-lived climate pollutants estimates this could rise to between 7% and 19% by 2050 if climate-friendly replacements are not found.

There have been moves to restrict HFCs in Europe, China and the US.

The European Union introduced a partial ban in the spring.

China, which had previously resisted change, last month set a target to slash emissions from HFCs.

The US Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed a ban on HFC where alternatives are available. That followed the introduction of a bipartisan Super Pollutants Bill into the Senate last month.

Campaigners say these moves are already starting to shape the market but international action is needed.


The Montreal Protocol could be an effective vehicle to cut HFCs. It is backed by all 197 parties to the UN and has a near perfect compliance record.

While HFCs are covered by efforts to reduce overall emissions, it is only one of several greenhouse gases that policymakers have to consider.

The Montreal Protocol targets production of chemical products, exerting a more direct pressure on manufacturers to develop alternatives.

There are two separate proposals to phase out HFCs using the Montreal Protocol. One comes from the USA, Mexico and Canada; the other from the Micronesian islands.

Micronesia and other small island states are facing an existential threat from sea level rise. Action on HFCs is seen as a policy that could mitigate climate change fast, buying precious time for these tiny countries.

The Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), a think-tank focused on short-lived climate pollutants, says the Micronesian proposal would prevent the emission of up to 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.

That would cost approximately US$ 0.05 a tonne, it claims, less than 1% the price of equivalent reductions paid for through the UN’s clean development mechanism.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the IGSD, says: “It will be the single fastest, cheapest method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, from a treaty that never fails.”


A number of Gulf states have resisted action through the Montreal Protocol. They are concerned that the alternatives to HFCs will not work as well as air conditioning in their hot climate.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait unsuccessfully sought to block HFCs from the agenda at this week’s meeting.

India has been vocal in protecting its significant chemical industry from restrictions. Its environment ministry estimates a ban could cost the Indian refrigeration sector 90,000 crore rupees (US$ 15 billion).

The alternatives to HFCs are mainly produced in richer countries such as the US and Japan, leaving less developed nations at a disadvantage.

India and the Gulf states argue that HFC emissions should be dealt with purely under the UN climate umbrella.

The UN climate framework accepts the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”, which broadly requires rich countries to make a bigger contribution to emissions cuts than poorer states.

Under the Montreal Protocol, in contrast, there is funding available for developing countries to cover only the short term incremental costs of switching to new technology.

For the same reason action though the Montreal Protocol is a cheaper way to cut emissions, it is less favourable to developing countries. Their support is likely to come at a price.

Technology shift

Natasha Hurley, a campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, acknowledges that hot countries “have more challenges” with phasing out HFCs.

However, she adds, “they are not going to be asked to do this overnight” and a phase-out would give impetus to the development of alternatives to HFCs.

There could be side benefits to shifting to new technology, Zaelke says. “Every time we have run a phase-out of refrigerants in the past, we have managed to catalyse significant improvements in energy efficiency.”

A study of 17 major economies by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory found switching to super-efficient air conditioning could avoid the need for 60GW of generation capacity, or 120 medium-sized power stations, by 2020.

The next meeting of the Montreal Protocol comes in November, when parties will agree the next round of funding.

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