At little noticed talks last week in Port Ghalib, Egypt, climate advocates were hoping to seal a global agreement for the phase down of super greenhouse gases and give next month's Copenhagen climate talks a can-do running start. But the annual meeting of the 198 nations of the Montreal Protocol began on a note of contention that five days of discussions could not overcome.
The 22-year-old Montreal Protocol has delivered an unbroken string of successes in the battle against ozone depletion, accomplished with comity and cooperation, but now observers say it has caught the climate virus. Rhetoric trumped getting down to business, as an agreement to rid the world of HFCs, enormously potent global warming gases, was postponed for at least another year.
"We're approaching tipping points fast, and we missed an opportunity to take action this year," said Durwood Zaelke, president of the , who attended the talks in Egypt.
The central issue on the table was what to do about "super greenhouse gases," a popular term for hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. In previous years, the Montreal Protocol had anointed HFCs as replacement gases for ozone destroying chemicals commonly used as refrigerants. Though HFCs do not harm the ozone, it turns out they are lethal global warming agents, thousands of times than CO2 at warming the planet.
With rising prosperity in developing nations, HFC use is expected to . Left unchecked, their build-up in the atmosphere could essentially negate current efforts to reduce carbon dioxide to safe levels by 2050.
It a serious matter that has gotten precious little attention.
The U.S. delegation at the talks in Egypt was pushing to amend the Montreal Protocol to allow for an HFC phase-down and was shocked to find its effort soundly rebuffed. Negotiating with less than full support from the administration at home, the U.S. team was also blindsided by simmering resentment among developing nations. It proved no match against the Chinese and Indian delegations. Largely for monetary reasons, both sat stubbornly opposed to the amendment and prevailed.
Even though the stakes for the global environment are very high, the meeting ended with no amendment and no binding decision on HFCs. Instead, 41 out of 198 countries signed a weak "declaration of intent."
Advocates are doing their best to put a happy face on the outcome, but the failure to act on phasing down HFCs is a disappointment, and it provides a preview of an outcome that many fear may be repeated on a larger scale in Copenhagen.
The U.S. had introduced an amendment to the to include HFCs in the list of gases the treaty could regulate. The proposal would have allowed the treaty's well-established working mechanisms to be deployed against the HFC emergency within the larger climate and greenhouse gas emergency.
"It provided the tantalizing prospect that the nations of the world are going to take the most significant action on climate mitigation possible in the near term," said Sam LaBudde of the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency.
While the U.S. amendment was supported by Canada and Mexico and buttressed by an even stronger proposal from Micronesia and Mauritius and other island nations, two conflicting positions emerged on Day 1 of the meeting.
The European Union occupied a middle ground. Though not opposed to a phase-out of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, the EU was not in favor of action that could disturb upcoming climate negotiations under the Kyoto regime prior to meetings in Copenhagen.