UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The Obama administration, in a major
environmental policy shift, is leaning toward asking 195 nations
that ratified the U.N. ozone treaty to enact mandatory reductions
in hydrofluorocarbons, according to U.S. officials and documents
obtained by The Associated Press.
"We're considering this as an option," Environmental
Protection Agency spokeswoman Adora Andy said Wednesday,
emphasizing that while a final decision has not been made it was
accurate to describe this as the administration's "preferred
The change - the first U.S.-proposed mandatory global cut in
greenhouse gases - would transform the ozone treaty into a strong
tool for fighting global warming.
"Now it's going to be a climate treaty, with no ozone-depleting
materials, if this goes forward," an EPA technical expert said
Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because a final
decision is pending.
The expert said the 21-year-old ozone treaty known as the
Montreal Protocol created virtually the entire market for
hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, so including them in the treaty would
take care of a problem of its own making.
It's uncertain how that would work in conjunction with the Kyoto
Protocol, the world's climate treaty, which now regulates HFCs and
was rejected by the Bush administration. Negotiations to replace
Kyoto, which expires in 2012, are to be concluded in December in
The Montreal Protocol is widely viewed as one of the most
successful environmental treaties because it essentially eliminated
the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, blamed for damaging the
ozone layer over Antarctica.
Because they do not affect the ozone layer, HFCs broadly
replaced CFCs as coolants in everything from refrigerators, air
conditioners and fire extinguishers to aerosol sprays, medical
devices and semiconductors.
But experts say the solution to one problem is now worsening
As a result, the U.S. is calling HFCs "a significant and
growing source of emissions" that could be eliminated more quickly
in several ways, including amending the ozone treaty or creating
"a legally distinct agreement" linked to the Montreal Protocol,
says a March 27 State Department briefing paper presented at one of
two recent meetings on the topic.
State Department officials told participants at one of last
month's meetings that the United States wants to amend the Montreal
Protocol to phase out the use of HFCs, a change praised by
environmentalists. But there appear to be some interagency snags.
Though the State Department secured backing from the Pentagon
and other agencies for amending the Montreal Protocol, some
opposition remains within the administration, U.S. officials say.
It is not clear if the proposal to eliminate HFCs will be submitted
by next week, in time to be considered at a meeting in November by
parties to the Montreal Protocol.
Proponents say eliminating HFCs would have an impact within our
lifetimes. HFCs do most of their damage in their first 30 years in
the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide which spreads its impact over
a longer period of time.
"Retiring HFCs is our best hope of avoiding a near-term tipping
point for irreversible climate change. It's an opportunity the
world simply cannot afford to miss, and every year we delay action
on HFCs reduces the benefit," said Alexander von Bismarck,
executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a
nonprofit watchdog group in Washington that first pitched the idea
two years ago.
Globally, a huge market has sprung up around the use of HFCs, a
man-made chemical, as a result of their promotion under the
Montreal Protocol. Several billion dollars have been spent through
an affiliated fund to prod countries to stop making and using CFCs
and other ozone-damaging chemicals and to instead use cheap and
effective chemicals like HFCs.
Scientists say eliminating use of HFCs would spare the world an
amount of greenhouse gases up to about a third of all CO2 emissions
about two to four decades from now. Manufacturers in both Europe
and the U.S. have begun to replace HFCs with so-called natural
refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, ammonia or carbon dioxide.
HFCs can be up to 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide
as climate-warming chemicals, according to U.S. government data.
Currently they account for only about 2 percent of all
greenhouse-gas emissions, but the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change warned in 2005 that use of HFCs was growing at 8.8
percent per year.
More recent studies concur and show that HFCs are on a path to
reach about 11 billion tons of greenhouse gases, which would
constitute up to a third of all greenhouse gas emissions by
sometime within 2030 and 2040 under some CO2-reduction scenarios.
House Democrats also are adding to the pressure on HFCs.
In an April 3 letter to President Barack Obama, California Rep.
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, urged the White House to offer an amendment to the Montreal Protocol this year.
"Although we strongly support a comprehensive international
agreement on climate change, we believe that adding HFCs to the
existing Montreal Protocol would be a sensible, cost-effective
method of addressing a small but growing piece of the problem,"
Waxman and Markey also have drafted legislation laying out a
broad outline for phasing out HFCs in the United States.
Worldwide, phasing out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol could
prevent 90 billion tons of greenhouse gases by 2040, by including
nations like India and China that were not part of the Kyoto
Nations such as Argentina, the Federated States of Micronesia,
Mauritius and Mexico have recently pushed for climate protections
under the Montreal Protocol, arguing every possible tool must be
used to combat climate change.
The EPA in April determined that hydrofluorocarbons were one of
six greenhouse gases endangering human health and welfare, a ruling
that could eventually lead to mandatory reductions in the U.S.
under the Clean Air Act.
"This is a strong sign of new American leadership in
atmospheric protection," said von Bismarck.