Roberts attended the meetings in Port Ghalib and provided SolveClimate with daily dispatches of the proceedings. On the second day of the meeting, he reported that China, India and a few other countries refused to even open discussion on the text that dealt with HFCs. It was later that day that the U.S. was forced to retreat.
"John Thompson, a senior member of the United States delegation to the Montreal Protocol, announced with reluctance that that the North American countries will not push for an amendment of the Montreal Protocol to implement the phase out of hydrofluorocarbons at the current meeting now going on in Port Ghalib, Egypt," Roberts reported.
The U.S. delegation, led by Daniel Reifsnyder, a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department, shifted to Plan B: It pressed for a strong "decision" from the assembled nations instead, hoping for binding actions that would set the stage for amending the Montreal Protocol in 2010. But that goal, too, proved beyond reach.
In the lead up to the Egypt meetings, the U.S. delegation was handicapped by less than full support from the administration. Last spring, President Obama's newly installed climate team balked at introducing an amendment the ozone team was championing, wanting more time to study the issue. The internal rift was smoothed over but never quite resolved.
The U.S. did eventually introduce a Montreal Protocol amendment, and the ozone team requested additional State Department staff to generate support for it from foreign governments. The request was not granted. Further, both Roberts and Zaelke said that neither Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the handful of phone calls needed for the amendment to succeed.
HFCs were also kept off the agenda in recent international climate talks in Bangkok, as negotiators had their hands full dealing with CO2. And with almost no media covering the meetings in Port Ghalib, it became easy for China and India to adopt an uncompromising "no deal" posture and send the HFC question to Copenhagen unresolved. It now becomes a bargaining chip in a larger and more complex negotiation.
"Another year of no action on HFCs adds a huge burden to the atmosphere," Roberts told SolveClimate by phone from Egypt. "And the delay makes it that much more costly to phase it down another year from now."
But the Montreal Protocol meeting did yield two binding decisions that Roberts says are important steps forward in climate protection. The parties agreed to stop paying for the substitution of ozone destroying substances if high-global warming potential gases such as HFCs are used; and they escalated actions to destroy existing banks of gases — as much as 6 gigatons of CO2-equivalent HFCs over the next five years — to prevent their release into the atmosphere.
Still, negotiators and insiders are concerned with the lack of progress on HFCs. Immediate action under the Montreal Protocol would prevent their manufacture to begin with, and it would offer a cheaper pathway to alternatives. HFCs handled in a climate regime are dealt with after they are produced and inserted into millions of cars and refrigerators dispersed around the globe, with much larger payments required to bring them under control.
It is a fearsome genie that no one wants out of the bottle. HFC proliferation would exacerbate an already dire climate emergency. Yet negotiators from both developed and developing nations proved themselves ill-prepared to harvest this low-hanging fruit. They failed at a crucial moment to send a model of successful global cooperation to Copenhagen to energize the already troubled talks there.
Zaelke still holds out hope for a good outcome. Negotiators in Copenhagen can deliver solid progress by officially requesting that the Montreal Protocol be used to phase down HFCs as quickly as possible, with oversight provided by the existing climate regime.
"It is still possible for Copenhagen to seize this opportunity to prevent the release of 100 billion tons of CO2-equivalent by enlisting the help of an adjunct treaty that already works," he said. "Resolving the HFC issue would be a good down-payment for a troubled system to make, and would break the climate logjam."
Zaelke is hoping Obama administration officials will supply the diplomatic muscle needed to make that happen this time, but just a few weeks shy of Copenhagen, there is no evidence they will.
"If they don't, then HFCs are just going to get lost in the noise, and we'll lose the opportunity to shape policy around fast actions that buy us as much time as possible," Zaelke said.