Before climate change became the most important global environmental concern, the depletion of the ozone layer dominated the discourse. This depletion was being caused by the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) primarily in refrigerators and of HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) largely in air-conditioners. To deal with this threat, following the Vienna Convention in 1985, the Montreal Protocol came into existence in 1987 with a Multilateral Fund following in 1991. This has been an outstanding success. The Multilateral Fund has provided close to $280 million to India so far and CFCs had been virtually phased out by 2010 itself. HCFCs are to be phased out by 2040, with a reduction of 10% by 2015 and 35% by 2020.
In both cases, HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) have substituted effectively for the two ozone-depleting substances. But this solution is now emerging as a threat in the climate change arena since HFCs are potent greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide (CO2) predominates in quantity and remains the primary threat but the global warming potential of HFCs is a thousand times greater than CO2. HFCs are also dangerous since they also have long atmospheric lifespans. Currently, they account for just about 2% of total CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions but by 2050 some estimates are that this share could zoom to about 20%.
The refrigerator and air-conditioner market in India is booming and will continue to do so given that currently less than a third of households own refrigerators and just about 7% own ACs. For us, the challenge is two-fold: (i) how to move away from the HFCs already in use to other chemical substances that are have lower global warming potential; and (ii) how to go directly from the use of HCFCs to gases that have lower global warming potential bypassing the substitution by HFCs. Of course, there are still major technological concerns on the use of new gases with low global warming potential as alternatives to HFCs.
Flammability threats cannot be minimised altogether, especially where vehicle ACs and small room air-conditioning systems are concerned. Existing alternatives that are proven, like isobutane, are indeed flammable. What makes the matter even more problematic in India is the unorganised nature of the AC services industry, which had led to legitimate fears that poor servicing practices could well lead to explosions in homes and offices where ACs use flammable refrigerants. This, however, calls for higher standards and skill development in the services industry and cannot serve as an alibi for our inaction. In any case, the most informed opinion is that over the next five years non-flammable alternatives to HFCs will come into the market. Already, such alternatives exist with some subject to production patents but some being unpatented.
Unfortunately, on the HFCs issue India is seen to be obstructionist. It is now the only country opposing the consideration of the HFCs phase-down under the Montreal Protocol on the pedantic grounds that HFCs are not ozone-depleting and that they should come under the ambit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since they are greenhouse gases. Unexceptionable logic no doubt but to what end since the UNFCCC is really only a gigantic and continuous talk shop without the institutional and financial mechanisms that are an integral part of the Montreal Protocol. This is needless intransigence and obduracy. Moreover, it goes against what we had agreed to at the G20 Summit of Leaders at St Petersburg, whose statement of September 6, 2013, reads: “We also support complementary initiatives, through multilateral approaches that include using the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), based on the examination of economically viable and technically feasible alternatives. We will continue to include HFCs within the scope of UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol for accounting and reporting of emissions.” Similar sentiments were echoed in the September 27, 2013 joint statement issued after the meeting between US President Barack Obama and then PM Manmohan Singh although this had more of a bilateral dimension to it.
India should summon the courage and the vision to state categorically that it is very much in favour of transiting directly from the use of HCFCs to refrigerants that have low global warming potential, thereby obviating the need to go through the HFC route as an intervening step. As a quid pro quo, it could negotiate a relaxation of the HCFC reduction targets agreed to for 2020, 2025, 2030 and thereafter. Of course, the costs of conversion would continue to be met through the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol. It could also well negotiate for a premium over the incremental cost of conversion from the multilateral fund as a bonus for going directly from the use of HCFCs to refrigerants with low global warming potential. The point is that we must negotiate and negotiate smartly. Unlike the Chinese who signed a landmark bilateral agreement with the United States in June 2013 on the phase-down of HFCs under the aegis of the Montreal Protocol, we have so far adamantly closed the doors of negotiation and even conversation. True to character, the Chinese have been supremely pragmatic. Last year, they got a commitment of close to $385 million over the next 17 years to completely close and dismantle its production capacity for HCFCs.
The control over HFCs is considered to be a relatively ‘low hanging fruit’ in the climate change community. If a global phase-down could be agreed upon, experts estimate that a global average temperature increase of 0.5 degrees Celsius would be prevented. This would be a huge gain. India should not be seen to the ‘last man standing’, a role it has played so well, so often in international forums to its own disadvantage. It must agree to the formation of a ‘contact group’ under the Montreal Protocol that will begin discussing the details of this phase-down.
Jairam Ramesh is former minister of state for environment and forests. The views expressed by the author are personal.