Top 5 Reasons to Phase Down HFCs in the Montreal Protocol

An iceberg is seen off Ammassalik Island in Eastern Greenland, July 2007.

This column contains a correction.

In 1974, scientists first warned that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used for aerosols in hairsprays, refrigerants, and other products, were significantly depleting the ozone layer. The ozone layer protects humans from dangerous levels of ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer, cataracts, and weakened immune systems. Despite scientists’ repeated warnings, years of inaction followed, and by 1987, scientists discovered nearly a 50 percent loss of the Antarctica ozone layer. International cooperation was required to tackle the global ozone-depletion challenge.

That year, under the Reagan administration, the United States joined the most effective environmental global agreement to date: the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. It is the first global agreement to have universal participation, and it has eliminated nearly 100 percent of 10 ozone-depleting substances, or ODSs, worldwide.

Unfortunately, as the Montreal Protocol has phased out these ODSs, highly damaging global warming pollutants—primarily hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs—have replaced them. Without steps to curb the production and consumption of HFCs, they are expected to comprise 20 percent of annual CO2 emissions by 2050.

Countries should use the Montreal Protocol’s outstanding structure and impressive success to address the rise of global warming pollutants. Below are the top five reasons why the Montreal Protocol should be amended to phase down HFCs in particular.

1. A global phasedown of HFCs can prevent 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100 and yield other environmental and economic benefits

Phasing out HFCs under the Montreal Protocol is by far the most significant, cost-effective, and feasible measure the world can take to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial average temperatures. World leaders agreed to that level during the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, in Cancun, Mexico.

HFCs are hundreds to tens of thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, yet the average atmospheric lifetime for most commercially used HFCs is less than 15 years. Developed and produced as substitutes for ozone-depleting substances for use in refrigeration, air conditioning, insulation, solvents, aerosol, and fire-protection products, these gases are the fastest-growing greenhouse gases in the world.

Global average temperatures have already increased by more than 0.8 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years, which scientists agree is primarily due to human activity that has occurred since the industrial revolution. Phasing down HFCs—along with other super pollutants—in conjunction with a long-term reduction of carbon dioxide is essential for stabilizing global temperatures. HFC emissions are currently expected to grow between 686 percent and 1,139 percent from 2010 through 2050, largely due to increasing demand for refrigerators and air conditioners in developing countries.

Even if countries cut their CO2 emissions aggressively in the coming decades—as is required to achieve the 2 degrees Celsius goal by 2050—business-as-usual growth of HFCs will cancel out most of the benefit.

There are two proposals to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs. The North American proposal introduced by the United States, Canada, and Mexico would reduce more than 95 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050. A similar proposal submitted by the Federated States of Micronesia would reduce 100 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050. Both amendments have been introduced annually since 2009.

At the 2011 UNFCCC meeting in Durban, South Africa, meeting countries agreed to finish negotiations on an international climate change agreement that will be applicable to all parties by 2015 and implemented by 2020. Regardless of the ambition of the agreement finalized in 2015, however, it will not be implemented before 2020.

Recognizing this, as part of the Durban agreement, countries also decided to explore ways to close the pre-2020 ambition gap between the total emissions reductions from parties’ pledges up to 2020 under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and the global emissions trajectory for meeting the 2 degrees Celsius goal. The North American proposal would decrease the amount of CO2 equivalent by 1.9 gigatons by 2020—about the same as shutting down almost 200 coal-fired power plants. There is no greater opportunity than a phasedown of HFCs in the Montreal Protocol to reduce emissions by the level necessary by 2020 before an international climate agreement takes effect to keep the world on trajectory to meet the 2 degrees goal.

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Phasing down HFCs will also deliver significant energy-efficiency gains that will yield additional greenhouse gas reductions. The Montreal Protocol has driven significant energy-efficiency savings—up to 60 percent in some air-conditioning and refrigeration sectors as a result of refrigerant substitution and replacing older equipment with more-efficient machines. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates, for example, that the CFC-free chillers are 50 percent more energy efficient in the United States and more than 30 percent more efficient in India. By 2000, 45 percent of large-scale building air-conditioning units had been converted or replaced with non-CFC units, saving close to 7 billion kilowatt hours per year—enough to power 620,000 average-sized homes—and $480 million annually.

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Experts find that HFC alternatives with low global warming potential, or GWP, demonstrate efficiencies as good or better in a variety of domestic and commercial refrigeration applications and some air-conditioning systems. Phasing down HFCs will also drive the development of higher-efficiency air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment, which will reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

This is especially important in developing countries, where economic growth has led to increasing demand for refrigerators and air conditioners, reflected by a projected annual increase in HFC consumption in these countries of between 3.8 percent and 6.3 percent. China and India are the fastest-growing national markets for commercial refrigeration equipment, and the main driver of growth in residential energy demand in India will be refrigerators and air-conditioning units.

2. The Montreal Protocol is ‘perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date’

When the Montreal Protocol was signed, alternatives to CFCs were not readily available. By mandating a phasedown of ODSs, the treaty ensured a new market for chemical manufacturers to meet the demands of major consumers of CFCs and stimulated research and rapid development of alternative refrigerants and new chemicals.

One hundred ninety-seven countries have signed on to the Montreal Protocol, making it the only universally ratified U.N. treaty. In addition, the phase-out of ODSs resulted in a drop of about 8 gigatons of CO2 equivalent annually between 1988 and 2010. These avoided annual emissions represent about five times the annual emissions-reduction target of the first commitment period—2008 to 2012—of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets for developed countries that sign on to it.* As former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.”

Given the Montreal Protocol’s universal success to date, an effort to phase down HFCs through this body would have tremendous credibility and sway on global markets. Moreover, the increased use of HFCs to substitute for ODSs abandoned because of the Montreal Protocol makes it especially appropriate to use the existing structure of the Montreal Protocol to limit HFCs. Article 2 of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer—a framework for global efforts to protect the ozone, including the Montreal Protocol—which defines parties’ general obligations, allows for the adoption of legislative or administrative measures to “control, limit, reduce or prevent human activities under their jurisdiction or control should it be found that these activities have or are likely to have adverse effects resulting from modification or likely modification of the ozone layer.”

3. The Montreal Protocol organization already possesses the relevant technical expertise to tackle HFCs, and the structure is already in place

The Montreal Protocol’s experts on ODSs are the very same experts on HFCs used for the same purposes in the same sectors. The Technology and Economic Assessment Panel, or TEAP, comprised of experts from governmental agencies, universities, and nongovernmental organizations from around the world, provides internationally respected research on scientific, environmental, economic, and technological issues requested by parties to the Montreal Protocol. This research is continually updated to reflect the ever-changing industry.

Since HFCs entered the market in the 1990s, TEAP has issued annual recommendations on the usage and impacts of HFCs, making the panel well equipped to advise the international community on their usage. A May 2013 TEAP report, for example, examined the efficiency, cost effectiveness, and barriers of low-GWP HFC alternatives.

The Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol has disbursed about $2.9 billion among more than 6,800 projects to support developing countries’ efforts to meet their own phasedown targets of ODSs since its inception. These projects have successfully phased out more than 460,000 tons of ODSs in developing countries.

The fund has demonstrated strong success by funding projects that maximize the volume of ODSs phased out at minimum cost, and it provides incentives to discourage the establishment or continued use of ODSs. Since the HFC market is directed at industries similar to those that used ODSs, the fund can help phase out HFCs through the same financing streams and help developing countries overcome the capital barriers to reducing their consumption of HFCs.

Finally, the Montreal Protocol utilizes the expertise of its implementing bodies, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and the World Bank.

4. The Montreal Protocol is structured to account for differences between developing and developed nations

A phasedown of HFCs would follow the Montreal Protocol’s established architecture for the phase-out of ODSs: Developed countries would lead the phasedown of HFCs, and developing countries would begin their phasedown at a later date. The North American proposal would establish separate baselines for developing and developed countries based on historical data from 2008 to 2010. The later start date for developing countries would allow more time for the development of affordable and reliable alternatives. The phasedown of HFC production and consumption in developing countries would be eligible for funding under the Multilateral Fund.

The structure for a gradual phasedown led by developed countries and financial assistance to developing countries is consistent with the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, or CBDR. Given the success of the Montreal Protocol, this approach would lead to a successful global phasedown of HFCs and would serve as a model for the UNFCCC where hard-lined interpretations of CBDR have stalled progress in global cooperation to act effectively and swiftly to stop global warming.

5. Momentum for a phasedown of HFCs is stronger than ever

Over the past three years, support has steadily grown for phasing down HFCs. The following are some of the key recent events evidencing this growing momentum:

  • The private sector is committed to reducing HFCs, as evidenced by The Consumer Goods Forum’s November 2010 pledge to begin phasing out HFCs in new equipment in 2015.
  • More than 100 countries have signed declarations since 2010 supporting the transition to low-GWP alternatives to ODSs.
  • World leaders agreed to support a gradual phasedown in HFC consumption and production at the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20.
  • The Arctic Council—which India and China joined as official observers at the time—urged the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFC consumption and production as soon as possible in its final declaration, issued in May 2013.
  • President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on a pledge to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFC consumption and production during a presidential summit at the Sunnylands estate in California in June 2013.
  • The Climate and Clean Air Coalition, comprised of 33 countries and the European Union, endorsed an HFC phasedown under the Montreal Protocol on September 3, 2013.
  • Leaders of the world’s largest economies—which are responsible for around 80 percent of the world’s emissions—affirmed their support for using the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs at the G-20 summit in early September 2013. Simultaneously, President Obama and President Xi took their Sunnylands agreement one step further by agreeing to establish a contact group at the Montreal Protocol where countries can negotiate specific proposals—an important step for advancing an amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
  • Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to reconvene the India-U.S. Task Force on HFCs to discuss multilateral approaches for phasing down HFCs—including the Montreal Protocol—during a meeting with President Obama on September 27, 2013.


The greatest threat to our global environment—and perhaps to our own survival—is climate change as a consequence of uninhibited greenhouse gas emissions. Curbing the growth of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol will greatly increase the probability that we can achieve the emissions reductions that the scientific consensus says are necessary to stop climate change. The Montreal Protocol was dramatically successful in addressing the impending disaster of the last century by largely eliminating the use of ozone-destroying substances. That same protocol and existing infrastructure can and should now be used to redress the use of HFCs.

The time for action is long past. With China and India and their burgeoning economies having now acknowledged the danger and joined the cause, we should take advantage of the existing Montreal Protocol and leverage its prior success in the fight to curb HFCs.

Rebecca Lefton is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Ben Bovarnick is a Special Assistant at the Center.

*Correction, November 7, 2013: This column incorrectly stated that the avoided annual emissions between 1988 and 2010 resulting from the phase-out of ODSs represented about 5 percent of the annual emissions-reduction target of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. These avoided annual emissions actually represented about five times the annual emissions-reduction target of the first commitment period.