Associate Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources

Stephen O. Andersen, Director of Research, the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD)
Joanna Depledge, Affiliated Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge

Rising HFC use poses a significant threat to intergovernmental efforts to combat climate change. At present, there is a glaring regulatory gap in this area. Although challenging, there is no reason why the international community cannot come together to address this new problem of coordination and ensure that legal regimes support each other.

In this aerial image, icebergs are seen as a glacier is flown into the sea on July 30, 2012 near Qaanaaq, Greenland. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.In this aerial image, icebergs are seen as a glacier is flown into the sea on July 30, 2012 near Qaanaaq, Greenland. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are replacements for many of the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) currently being phased out under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Unlike those ozone-depleting substances (ODS), HFCs do not destroy the ozone layer, but they are very powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs) – up to thousands of times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide – and their use is currently growing faster than any other category of GHGs. Projections show HFC use increasing as much as 30-fold by 2050, adding up to 0.1°C of global average temperature rise by mid-century, and increasing up to five-fold, to 0.5°C, by 2100. This clearly makes it more difficult to limit the rise in global temperature to the internationally agreed ceiling of 2°C – and thereby avoid dangerous climate change – by the end of the 21st century.

As GHGs, HFCs fall under the purview of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and are explicitly listed under the UNFCCC’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which controls emissions of HFCs and other GHGs. They are not, however, subject to any specific measures under the climate agreements, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Accordingly, the last five years have seen proposals to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.

Such a step would have a number of advantages. Since substitutes already exist for almost all uses of HFCs, the consumption and production phase-out model of the Montreal Protocol is better suited to controlling HFCs than the emissions limits controls of the climate regime; and the individuals and organizations involved in implementing the Montreal Protocol have accumulated substantial experience and expertise in dealing with precisely those industrial sectors in which HFCs are used, including refrigeration and air-conditioning, foams, solvents and aerosols.

This paper, which draws on the discussions at a workshop held at Chatham House in April 2014, outlines the main issues around the question of how best to craft a fair and effective global response to the growth in HFC use. A number of key issues are central to the debate: the principle of equity between developed and developing countries; the availability of alternatives to HFCs; the need for financial support for developing countries; the legal relationship between the climate and ozone regimes; and, underlying all these, the need for political will to resolve these challenges.