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Sunita Narain: Ozone-smart, climate-cool

One item on the agenda of the much-discussed Narendra Modi-Barack Obama meeting that has Indian commentators flummoxed is hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The joint statement issued after the meeting of the two heads of states says rather ambiguously that the two sides agreed to cooperate on “next steps to tackle the challenge posed by HFCs to global warming”.

HFC has been a bugbear in the India-United States relationship – as big as World Trade Organization and Intellectual Property Rights disputes. The United States wants to begin negotiations for the phase-out of HFC – a chemical used in a wide range of industrial and household products, such as refrigerators, air-conditioners and solvents – under the United Nations’ Montreal Protocol. India argues that the Montreal Protocol is for protecting the world from ozone-layer depletion and HFC is harmful because it contributes to climate change, so discussions should take place under the United Nations’ climate convention, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In fact, HFC is the chemical that the world introduced to phase out hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC), an interim substitute for chlorofluorocarbon (CFC). Both HCFC and CFC were indicted for damaging the stratospheric ozone layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays.

Seemingly, the United States is driven by green concerns, as HFCs are greenhouse gases, which are over 2,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But all now depends on the alternative the world chooses. When this chemical was introduced it was understood that it would be bad for the climate, but as the world was looking for ways to deal with ozone depletion, it was adopted. In this way, the world decided to solve one problem by creating another.

In the past decade, the use of HFC has grown by eight-10 per cent annually, mostly in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia, and mostly for use in their air-conditioning and refrigerator sector. Now developing countries will begin to phase out HCFC. Should they first phase into HFC and then phase out of it because it is bad for climate change? Or should they leapfrog to new substances, good for both ozone and climate?

This is where the politics of technology becomes murky. The same companies that first invented CFC and then profited from its phase-out are now ready with another alternative. It is not a coincidence that United States companies DuPont and Honeywell are promoting hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) for air-conditioning and HFC-1234yf for car air-conditioning. But these new generation chemicals are plagued with the same problems. For instance, HFO is good for ozone, has less global-warming potential, but is still not so good for climate because it is energy-inefficient. Since indirect emissions (due to energy use) from appliances are responsible for over 80 per cent of the problem, this chemical will add to climate change.

But the commercial interests are huge and powerful, hence the push to move discussions to the Montreal Protocol, where the United States is a party and things can be expedited.

The Indian government’s position is equally driven by commerce. Its four companies that made ozone-depleting CFC got a windfall of $ 82 million to move to HCFC. Now they want to be paid for the next phase-out to HFC. Worse, they were paid millions of dollars to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from HCFC plants under the climate convention. It is, therefore, in their interest to keep the negotiations under the Montreal Protocol to phase into an ozone-friendly gas, which is bad for climate, and then under the climate convention to phase out of climate-potent substances. Clearly, this cannot be acceptable.

The Modi-Obama joint statement indicates a movement ahead by recognising the need to use the Montreal Protocol to reduce HFC and to continue to account under the UNFCCC. This is good. Now, the real work begins.

It is important for India to take a proactive position. It should first get industrialised countries to agree to an ambitious phase-out of HFC by 2020, instead of 2035. Next, it should ask for changes in the Montreal Protocol so that countries can leapfrog the fluorinated chemicals treadmill. Alternative technologies, rated on the basis of their lifecycle energy emissions, are available. For instance,some companies are moving to hydrocarbons, such as propane and butane, for refrigeration and air-conditioning. The United States still does not allow this shift, arguing flammability problems associated with these off-patented technologies.

The question is, profit or planet?

Twitter: @sunitanar


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