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Step on the gas: What India must do for the planet

Jairam Ramesh is right when he says that India should agree to phase out HFC — a powerful greenhouse gas. But he is wrong when he argues that the non-patented substitutes for this chemical are inflammable and therefore, not desirable.

ht view Updated: Sep 23, 2014 01:10 IST

Jairam Ramesh is right when he says that India should agree to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) — a powerful greenhouse gas. But he is wrong when he argues that the non-patented substitutes for this chemical are inflammable and therefore, not desirable.

In this way, the former Union minister for environment and forests, who wrote in the Hindustan Times (Last Man Standing, September 15), would willy-nilly push India towards technological half-solutions being promoted by large companies, primarily based in the United States. So, yes the government needs to act.

But in ways in which we can promote alternative technologies that do not solve one problem and create another. Let us explain: It was in the mid-1980s that scientists first discovered a hole in the stratospheric ozone layer, exposing us to harmful UV rays leading to increased incidence of skin cancers.

The wonder chemical chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) — used primarily in refrigerants, air conditioners, aerosol propellants and solvents was identified as the cause of the problem. The chemical alternatives were two patented products — hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), which was a half solution because it was also an ozone depleting gas, but less harmful as compared to CFC.

The second alternative, HFC was good for ozone but bad for climate change — it has an extremely high global warming potential. It was agreed under the UN’s Montreal Protocol that developed countries would take the lead and phase-out CFC by 2000 and developing world — countries like India — would be paid the incremental costs of moving out from CFC to HCFC by 2010.

As it was an interim solution, developed countries agreed to phase-out HCFC by 2020 and developing countries by 2030. Over time, therefore, the industrialised world made the transition from HCFCs to HFC — knowing fully well that it will have an impact on climate change. Since 2004, HFC emissions are growing at 8-10% annually — primarily from use in refrigeration and air conditioning and primarily from the US, the EU and Japan. But this is not discussed sufficiently.

Instead, the developing countries are in the dock, as they now make the transition to HFC; the deadline for phase-out of the ozone depleting HCFC has begun in 2013 for them. So, the politics is to move developing countries to newer chemicals — ironically manufactured by the same companies that have been in the business till now.

The US is taking a lead. It wants countries to agree to discussions at the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFC and to move to a new generation of substances instead. It is no coincidence that DuPont and Honeywell are ready with the alternative for the lucrative air conditioning sector — a chemical called HFO.

This chemical is good for ozone, has less global warming potential but still not so very good for climate as it is energy inefficient. As indirect emissions (emissions due to energy use) from appliances like air conditioners are over 80% of the problem, this chemical works but does not help. It also has concerns about being highly water polluting.

But the commercial interests are huge and powerful. In all this, India has been the ‘obstructionist’ player, arguing that as HFC is not an ozone depleting substances, but has global warming impacts, negotiations must be under the UN climate change convention. The former minister, who incidentally had the opportunity to do right when he was holding charge, is correct in saying that India should get off its high horse on this issue.

The fact is HFC is a pollutant and we should not first make the transition to using it in our refrigeration and air-conditioning industry and then shift out. But Ramesh fails to mention that the Indian position is driven by commerce as well. Its four companies that manufactured CFC were first paid $82 million to move to HCFC.

Now they want to be paid to close down the HCFC plant and make money by selling HFCs. Worse, they were paid millions of dollars even to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from the HCFC plants — under the climate convention.

So, it is in their interests to keep negotiations going in the Montreal Protocol — where they get to collect for phase out of ozone depleting substances and also in the Climate Convention where they make money to reduce emissions.

This needs to change. The government should agree to negotiate HFC at the Montreal Protocol, but with some conditions. One, industrialised countries must agree to an ambitious and aggressive phase out of HFC by 2020. Currently, their most ambitious proposal is to keep using this potent climate change substance till 2035.

Two, that countries like India will do the leapfrog — not take the road via polluting HFC. Our deadline for phase out of HCFC should be relaxed so that we make the one-time jump to new technologies.

Three, these alternative technologies, including what the industrialised world will begin using post its phase out of HFC must be rated on being good for the ozone and for the climate.

The greenhouse gas emission potential will be done on the basis of the lifecycle of the technology. This means that if a chemical is energy inefficient, it will not be promoted.

Four, countries need to move towards technologies that get us off the fluorinated chemical treadmill. Hydrocarbon — propane and butane — is one such substance, which is also highly energy efficient.

The US does not want these off-patent chemicals, because it says it is inflammable — a position that Ramesh also subscribes to in his article.

But the flammability bogey is not flying anymore. Even Indian companies are now shifting to hydrocarbon use in refrigerators and air conditioners.

The government must do what is right, not for few companies, but for people and the planet.

For all our sake.

Sunita Narain is director-general and Chandra Bhushan is deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi The views expressed by the authors are personal (Sitaram Yechury’s column Left Hand Drive will appear on Wednesday)