The signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987 saw the world unite to restore the Earth’s ozone layer. Since then, use of the main culprits responsible for the ozone hole, chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, and other ozone depleting substances, has largely been phased out. The world has transitioned to a range of other non ozone-depleting chemicals in the many application areas where CFCs were used, including in refrigeration, air conditioning, foam blowing and medical inhalers. In many sectors, we have transitioned to a new class of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which do not harm the ozone layer, but, as it turns out, have a high global warming potential (GWP).
At the 29th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol, which will be held in Kigali, Rwanda, in October next year, the world will try to put together a framework to phaseout HFCs in favour of the next generation of refrigeration and air conditioning coolants which do not harm the ozone layer, and also have a much lower GWP as compared to HFCs. Several countries, including India, have presented amendments to the Montreal Protocol, setting out time tables for the phaseout of HFCs, which will be discussed—and hopefully finalised—in Kigali.
India has historically had a low consumption of CFCs and now of HFCs; in 2013 the country’s consumption of HFCs was 1.6% of the global consumption. However, the use of HFCs is rising rapidly since they are the main non-ozone depleting coolant being adopted in refrigerants and air conditioners, and as the demand for cooling increases, so does their use. This is of particular importance in the Indian context, given that our cooling needs are more than those in other countries because of our larger population and higher temperatures.
Also, a vast bulk of our buildings are yet to be built, and all assessments indicate that an increasing fraction of the new buildings would be fully or partially air conditioned. This means that our HFC consumption and energy consumption (and our global warming emissions) will increase as more and more ACs are made and sold.
This double whammy needs to be addressed by both phasing out HFCs and by increasing the energy efficiency of ACs—so that we need fewer additional power plants in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with both HFC use and electricity production.
At Kigali, it will be in the world’s interest (and certainly in India’s interest) to ensure that the high-GWP HFCs are phased out, and at the same time, energy-efficient ACs are incentivised. This seems to be common sense, but there are reasons for being wary. During the CFC phaseout, the multilateral fund of the Montreal Protocol had deducted the energy efficiency gains of the HFC-based refrigerators while computing the support provided to developing country companies to make up for the loss in moving from CFC to HFC based systems. This had led to a perverse incentive, as many refrigerator manufacturers did not opt for the most efficient technologies. It would be catastrophic for the economy if we let that happen now.
The early and simultaneous phaseout of HFCs and enhancement of energy efficiency will no doubt require innovative approaches. We have seen innovation happen during global negotiations—it was clearly visible at Paris during the climate change negotiations in December last year, and there is scope to believe that it will be visible in Kigali as well.
HFC phaseout and energy efficiency enhancement are both important; India will need to be at the forefront of the discussions to make this happen, and coax and cajole the world to effectively cooperate and collaborate towards this goal.
The author is director general, TERI. Views are personal