The U.S. State Department's effort to combat a class of "super greenhouse gases" many thousands of times more potent than CO2 hit a speed bump at the White House yesterday, jeopardizing its chances of meeting a May 4 deadline.
The goal of the effort is to use the Montreal Protocol to phase down the global use of hydroflurocarbons, or HFCs. While currently used only in small amounts for air-conditioning and refrigeration, these gases are projected to grow astronomically in coming decades.
In response to the White House delay, Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer sent a letter to President Obama today urging him to get behind the State Department plan.
"We understand that your administration is considering offering an amendment to the Montreal Protocol next week that would provide authority to regulate HFCs. We strongly support such an amendment," they wrote.
Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, leading the push for climate legislation in the House, also supported the State Department plan in a letter sent earlier this month to the White House.
Left unchecked, HFCs would add up to 25 times the current total U.S. emissions to the global burden by 2040, largely because of their use in ever greater numbers in the developing world. They could effectively negate all reductions in CO2 currently being contemplated.
Over the 20 years of its existence, the has tackled the phase out of more than 90 similar gases, and policymakers believe it offers the best avenue for immediately handling HFCs.
Earlier this month in Bonn, Todd Stern, the United States' the Montreal Protocol as "the most successful environmental treaty that we have," and he listed it first among five building blocks for a successful international climate treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen at the end of this year.
The State Department, EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Pentagon are among the agencies behind the plan to amend the Montreal Protocol so it can regulate HFCs, and expectations for success were high going in to an interagency meeting at the White House yesterday.
But the plan hit stiff resistance from a White House economist who attended the meeting, three sources closely involved in the process tell SolveClimate.
Maintaining their inclusion within the Kyoto basket of gases would help keep the price of carbon credits down, the economist argued, and would allow for greater economic efficiency by permitting the trading of one gas against another.
In other words, a utility company or cement manufacturer on the hook to reduce CO2 emissions under a federal climate law could opt to find sources of HFCs and have them destroyed instead. Since HFCs are as much as 11,990 times more potent than CO2, small amounts could substitute for large amounts of CO2 emissions and offer a cheaper alternative to emissions reductions, lubricating the economy to a more gradual embrace of a price on carbon. It also means CO2 emissions would ratchet down more slowly.
The difference of opinion within the administration on one of its signature issues was an unexpected development.
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