That would mean that the three kilograms of refrigerant in a typical air conditioner would suddenly add $150 in additional carbon charges alone, which by the time it worked its way up the value chain could add hundreds of dollars to the price charged to consumers.
That reality is what would spur industry to develop substitute gases in a hurry, but there is concern it could create a perverse incentive among polluters. Polluters would want to encourage HFCs in the marketplace in the knowledge that they could be worth $50,000 a ton – in the case of R410a – as a CO2 substitute. This kind of market manipulation has already been documented. Systematic abuses uncovered in the EU trading system sent .
"To hold up HFCs as an ace up America's sleeve is disingenuous," said S.F. Labudde of the international NGO Environmental Investigation Agency. "It means you won't have to do anything on CO2."
Durwood Zaelke, the founder and president of the who directs the organization's fast-action climate mitigation strategies, was similarly perplexed by the development.
"The Montreal Treaty has never failed, and not using it would be planetary malpractice," he said. "The administration could be heroes of the entire world by grasping this."
The international attention on this pending decision has high stakes attached. Today, the Federated States of Micronesia and Mauritius, two island nations threatened by warming-induced sea-level rise, formally introduced an HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol. They see action on HFCs as critical for their survival.
“Continuing to emit these super greenhouse gases is irresponsible when we have climate and ozone-friendly alternatives available,” said Ambassador Masao Nakayama, Permanent Representative of FSM to the United Nations. “Strengthening the Montreal Protocol can help save island countries like ours from extinction.”
On the world stage, it would be embarrassing for the United States not to join these nations in leading on the issue. Failure to move a U.S. amendment would also draw attention to the economic strategy designed to mitigate carbon costs for U.S. polluters, and it would undermine the credibility of U.S. promises of leadership.
"The United States is fully engaged and ready to lead and determined to make up for lost time, both at home and abroad," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared earlier this week before of the world.
"The president and his entire administration are committed to addressing this issue [climate change], and we will act."
While support for moving a U.S. amendment is strong – and at odds with the position of the White House economist – opinion nevertheless is divided over whether the Montreal Protocol should be allowed to do the job on HFCs alone.
McFarland, speaking for Dupont, said his company supports a separate agreement on HFCs "patterned after the Montreal Protocol" which has the knowledge base and support structures in place to handle the gases. He called it a "perfect fit."
Kert Davies at Greenpeace, who has worked on HFCs and the Montreal Protocol for decades, has some concerns. Industry has powerful influence within the Montreal mechanism, and he fears industry could shoot low on what's technically feasible. Still, he's in favor of the amendment process because it will provoke a dialogue and force the Kyoto convention to react in kind.
Observers are closely watching this internal Obama team battle, and whether the latest letter of support from Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Boxer, chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, will tip the scales.
The U.S. amendment to the Montreal Protocol must be filed by Monday to meet the deadline. Calls to the White House National Economic Council for comment were not returned.
"It's a political gimmie," Zaelke said. "You can solve one-third of the climate problem with industry bought in using a treaty that's never failed. It's an open field, 99-yard return."
Official White House Photos by Pete Souza
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