It doesn’t happen often that the Government votes with Senator Fielding against climate mitigation proposals put forward by the Greens and supported by the Coalition, but it did yesterday in the Senate.

Despite Labour’s opposition, Greens Senator Christine Milne’s motion was passed, and calls on the Government to support a proposed amendment put forth by several Small Island States to expand and strengthen the 20-year old Montreal Protocol designed to protect the ozone layer, in order to achieve fast-action climate change mitigation by reducing the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) used as refrigerants.

HFCs are not ozone depleting substances, but (like CFCs and HCFCs) they are very powerful greenhouse gases, and have been largely overlooked in the climate debate in Australia until now.

Early this week, a landmark contribution to the scientific understanding of the significance of HFCs was published by several leading ozone and climate scientists and bluntly titled “The Large Contribution of Projected HFC Emissions to Future Climate Forcing”, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Guus Velders of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, the lead author, has said “Our team of scientists calculates that HFCs present a significant threat to the world’s efforts to stabilize climate emissions”.

“Because of the projected growth of these climate-warming chemicals, they could represent up to 45 per cent of the total global C02 emissions by 2050 under a scenario that stabilizes C02 emissions at 450 parts per million. Preventing strong growth in HFC use is an important climate mitigation option the world has now”, Velders warns, but it seems the Australian Government is slow to respond.

The U.S. has already submitted a letter of interest to the Ozone Secretariat while the EC made a submission to the UNFCCC calling for an “international emission reduction arrangement for HFCs”.

Under a business as usual scenario, where C02 emissions are higher, HFCs could equate to between 9-19% of C02 emissions in 2050 causing a greenhouse effect equal to 6-13 years of global C02 pollution.

In response to the Velders study, this week several small island states have written to President Obama calling on him to provide US support for the proposals to address HFCs in Montreal Protocol negotiations in Geneva in July, in preparation for a decision at the November Meeting of the Parties.

As a regional leader, Australian leadership on an issue championed by its small-island neighbours who are most vulnerable to climate change is indispensable and may break the gridlock between Europe and United States.

Responsible Ministers must listen to this call from the Senate and Small Island States and urgently review the position of the Government on the need to phase out HFCs, and replace them with low and no-global warming potential alternatives such as natural refrigerants which provide genuinely climate friendly solutions to meet Australia’s cooling needs without warming the planet.

Australia has a significant opportunity to help restore our credibility on climate change internationally in the lead up to Copenhagen by voicing support for the proposed HFC amendment to deliver further climate benefits from the Montreal Protocol.

It is imperative that the Government provide visible and vocal leadership in the Geneva talks in order to convince our friends in both developed and developing countries, that taking swift action to reduce HFC emissions is the ‘low hanging fruit’ of climate change mitigation and an opportunity that must be seized.

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