Seeds of actions on Climate Change : Is it now India’s moment?

Indo American Strategic Dialogue

Himalayan tragedy in the State of Uttarakhand and in neighboring area is stark reminder of what Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been informing us about the frequency, intensity and uncertainty of its timing of the extreme weather events. Though the tragedy in Uttarakhand cannot be related directly and only to the climate change, it is wake up call for India to take wide spectrum of actions to mitigate climate change. Luckily these actions also have important side benefits and are not costly.

 One of such ready opportunity that India has, is to charter its actions towards climate-friendly and energy efficient air conditioning and refrigeration that consumes nearly 40 % of India’s electricity. India’s dependence on fossil fuel to produce and reach such electricity to the user is causing serious blows to its energy planning, its trade balance and emissions of Green House Gases. It is true that India cannot give up its dependence of the fossil fuel in near future; however, there are win-win strategies available. One of them is to mitigate the climate change by reducing the use of refrigerant gases of high Global Warming Potential (GWP), replace them with low or zero GWP refrigerant gases and at the same time leverage the possible energy efficiency advantage of appliances using alternatives.  Indian industry is ready to respond to this strategy and Indian government can seize the timing.

Two and half decade back, India seized similar opportunity under the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer. India’s record of implementation of the Montreal Protocol, considered as the most successful multilateral environmental agreement by any standard so far, has been impeccable. It has phased out of the production and consumption of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other Ozone Depleting substances well in time and in some cases even before the time limits stipulated under the Montreal Protocol.

India has also been global leader in giving strategic direction and shaping the collaborative approaches for the success of the Montreal Protocol. Its stewardship has played crucial role in formulation, establishment and efficient operation of the Multilateral Fund for the developing countries that is now operating for two decades without any financial crunch whatsoever. But the real ‘win’ under the Montreal Protocol was not just phase out of CFCs, but deriving societal benefits from use of alternative refrigerant and upgraded technology that made appliances and equipment more energy efficient. For example, the drive India started in 1990s for a ‘CFC-free energy efficient’ refrigerator has paid off. Today, all the refrigerators in Indian market are CFC free and are at least 50% more energy efficient.  Climate benefit, though unintended, was another huge ‘win’ for the Montreal Protocol. As another global benefit that the Montreal Protocol CFCs are also powerful GHGs, by phasing them out, the world could eliminate more than 130 Gigatones of CO2-eq of GHGs till 2010.

USA-China Presidential summit in California on June 8, 2013 included an agreement that was rather non-political and technically complex for the ‘popular’ press but it is critically important for India to reflect on it seriously and on urgent basis. USA and China, two of the world’s largest consumer and producers of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)-the powerful green house gases of very high global warming potential, agreed to work together on their phase down. This indeed is a critically significant new initiative by USA and China in response to continually daunting challenge of global climate change.

Both countries, as per the statement released on 9th June by the White House, Washington DC, ‘ will work together and with other countries to use the expertise and institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), among other forms of multilateral cooperation’.

Significance of this agreement stems from the facts that a global phase down of HFCs could potentially reduce about 100 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent by 2050, equal to roughly two years worth of current global greenhouse gas emissions and more than the United States emits in an entire decade. This will also avoid 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century and make a major contribution to keeping temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels. Phasing down HFCs by safer substitutes like hydrocarbons, low GWP chemicals and their blends will also catalyze energy efficiency improvement in the air conditioners, refrigerators and other equipment that presently use HFCs, as has been seen in other such technology transitions. Such energy efficiency would provide additional indirect climate benefit by significantly reducing CO2 emissions from electricity use.

Second, the agreement comes at the time when the scorching and frustrating details of global warming updates are emerging as time passes by. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a record peak of 400 parts per million on May 9, the highest level in the history for 2.5 million years as per National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), USA.  On June 5, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) presented in climate meeting in Bonn the widening emission gap between what world is aiming for and where it is headed in 2020 in its   ambitious efforts to limit the global rise of temperature to 2 degree centigrade. Such observations by UN body are making the climate-scientists and policy-makers nervous.  The gap, as concluded by 43 scientific groups from 22 countries, is whooping 8 Gt of CO2 equivalent under the ‘most ambitious’ scenario and 14 Gt of CO2 equivalent under business as usual. Further, as per report released on June 10 by International Energy Agency (IEA), Redrawing Climate-Energy Map gives stark warning that ‘The path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase of between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C.’ Such rise in temperature directs towards disastrous consequence and even collapse of human civilization. Though damaging floods in Uttarakhand cannot be directly related to climate change impact, it is early warning of what is expected in future in terms of the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, also highlighted in the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and industrial applications. Their emissions are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol, which will come to an end in 2015. HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, and hence their use is growing rapidly as replacements for ozone-depleting substances that are being successfully phased out under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Left unabated, HFC emissions growth could grow to nearly 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, a serious climate mitigation concern.

For the past four years, the United States, Canada, and Mexico as well as the Federal States of Micronesia and Morocco have proposed separate amendments to the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs. These efforts to phase down HFCs are now supported by 112 of the 197 countries that are Parties to the Montreal Protocol. The amendments also include financial assistance to cover all the incremental cost component for developing countries to move away from HFCs and leaves unchanged the reporting and accounting provisions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol on HFC emissions. Though majority of the Parties to the Protocol agreed to phase down of HFCs, India and China have consistently opposed any phase down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol for several reasons, one being that the industries in their countries have adopted to HFCs to eliminate CFCs and will now be adopting to HFCs to eliminate HCFCs.

The HFC agreement between President Obama and President Xi opens the door to a significant progress this year to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. India must still agree, of course, but they have been showing greater flexibility this year even before the Chine-US agreement, which now makes the amendment all but inevitable.  Reluctance from India risks leaving India on the sidelines as China and the U.S. develop their special relationship. It is significant that the Obama-Xi agreement really builds on Secretary of State John Kerry’s earlier efforts in China to form a climate task force. Secretary Kerry also made the HFC phase-down under the Montreal Protocol a priority of his participation in the Arctic Council summit last month, bringing Russia into the growing consensus. This follows the success of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who made significant progress in putting the HFC issue on the climate-agenda during Indo-US bilateral talks in. Ms. Clinton also made phasing down HFCs a key part of the Rio+20 summit declaration, supported by more than 100 heads of state. Ms. Clinton also made reductions of HFCs part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, which she launched in February 2012.

Leadership from India to support the HFC agreement would signal that the world has entered a new period where the largest emitters, both developed and developing, are working side by side to address our most critical climate issues. While efforts to cut CO2 and other climate pollutants will continue to be a challenge, future generations will view an HFC agreement as a turning point in climate protection, when the world finally began to take effective action.

Secretary of State John Kerry will be in India this week and India should lend its support on priority for HFC phase down under the Montreal Protocol. It would also open the door for another round of discussion at higher level when Indian Prime Minister visits Washington DC later this year. Three largest economies of the world working shoulder to shoulder to take action on climate change would be good omen and a strong signal. END

Author:  Rajendra Shende is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, Indian think-tank and former Director, UNEP. He was coordinating lead author of special report of IPCC ‘Safeguarding Ozone Layer and Global climate system’ and Steering Committee Member of UNEP report on ‘HFCs: A Critical Link in Protecting Climate and the Ozone Layer

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2 Responses to “Seeds of actions on Climate Change : Is it now India’s moment?”

  1. jui joshi says:

    nice article! but what i fail to understand here is that when cfcs were phased out industries shifted to hfcs. why werent hfcs banned that time itself? why have they continued till date? now what are the alternatives to them and are they viable, cost and availability wise, in the developing countries?

  2. Rajendra Shende says:

    Dear Jui, Very good question indeed. Sorry for the late reply.

    HCFCs have very low Ozone Depleting Potential ( ODP) than CFCs. To give numbers, if CFCs have ODP of 1 , then that of HCFCs ODPs range from 0.01 to 0.11. The most common HCFC used in room and commercial Air Conditioning has ODP of 0.055. Hence the Parties to the Montreal Protocol took a practical decision in 1987 to focus on getting rid of CFCs first. Scientific Modeling was done by NASA ( I had studied them when presented in 1989-1991) to find the impact on ozone layer of phasing out CFCs first and replacing them with HCFCs ( as non-HCFC alternatives were not available for all CFC applications at that time ) and take-up phase out of HCFCs later. They found that ozone layer could be put on recovery path if HCFCs phase out is done later . That gave adequate time for industries to develop non-HCFC alternatives. NASA also indicated based on atmospheric modeling, what could be the appropriate time for deciding HCFC phase out schedule for developed and developing countries.

    That decision was wise . Now there are alternatives to HCFCs like HFCs ( but they have Global Warming Potential) , Hydrocarbons, HFOs etc. Some of them are costly. They are also not as easily available. But thats why there is Multilateral Fund for fiancial assistance and technical assistance. Best Regards

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