May Revolution in China

May Revolution in China

Forth May movement in 1919 is known in the history of China as a turning point, when Chinese nationalism began to mainstream among masses and the elite groups of intellectuals took back seats. Opinions started molding on the streets rather than in the palaces.

Then there was another turning point for China that came in the month of May when Red Army of Chairman Mao took over the control of strategic bridge near Luding on river Dadu-a tributary of Yangtze- which cleared its Long March to West and North of China

Come May 2013. By putting in force long-awaited safety standard on household appliances including air-conditioners, China seem to have overcome market barrier to deploy hydrocarbons and other flammable refrigerants in place of HCFCs (Hydro chlorofluorocarbons).  HCFCs are the last group of ozone depleting gases with one of the least ozone depleting potentials among such gases. HCFCs are to be phased out as per the Montreal Protocol-an international environmental agreement-by 2040.  The challenge is to achieve this target by commercially deploying non-ozone depleting and non-or-low global warming alternatives to HCFCs so as to safe guard the Ozone layer and also our climate system.

A long march of China towards   HFC phase down seems have begun and is now within reach in China when on 1 May 2013 safety regulations on use of flammable refrigerants in Room Air Conditioning (RAC) have come into effect. The enforcement of the relevant GB standard has cleared the way to deploy hydrocarbons and other flammable alternatives for residential and commercial uses of RACs in China, which produces more than 115 million RAC units per year, more than 90 percent of the global production. When China clicks its remote RAC button, the world starts getting cool air!


But am I being pre-emptive in my thinking of this cool May Revolution?  My analysis of Chinese history tells me that we have to interpret ‘May incidence on safety standards’ very cautiously!

Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer is now universally ratified global environmental agreement. It is considered as one and only one of its kinds in the history of United Nations to have universal ratification and at the same time the most successful in its compliance by the countries.  The Protocol aims to phase out production and consumption of the chemicals that are dangerous to Earth’s protective ozone Layer. Chlorofluorocarbons  (CFCs) dominated the Chinese refrigeration and air conditioning as well as other industries like foam like an ‘imperial regime’ for a long time. But no longer.

For example, China, the largest producer of CFCs in the world since mid nineties and particularly after industrialized countries have phased it out in 1996, has phased out its own production of CFCs months ahead of the Montreal Protocol schedule.

In 2011, China finalized its strategy for the phase out of HCFCs-the ‘last emperor’ in the world of ozone depleting substances.  Now rewind 100 years back to 1911.  Chinese political mobilization from the elites to masses, as per my study of Chinese history, really started in 1911, when the imperial rule of Qing Dynasty ended giving way to the  ‘rule of people’. It sowed the seeds of Fourth May Revolution and even, I dare to say of new era i.e. what we see today-21st Century China.

This may look like a deliberate dramatizing the comparison of two seemingly different Chinese events. However, having   traced the time-line of Chinese historical events by roving around the lanes, by -lanes and alleys of the BEDA (Beijing University) campus with its politically alert alumni, ever since my first visit there in 1993, I am very much tempted to draw parallels, though to many it may be quixotic exercise.

In 2011, China fully complied with the Montreal Protocol and ended the ‘imperial rule of Chlorofluorocarbons’ (CFCs). The movement of protecting the ozone layer has now become the movement of masses. Not just in China but all over the world. Agencies like UNEP, UNDP, UNIDO and World have enabled the sustainability of the phase-out of production and consumption of CFCs. The phase out of remaining chemicals i.e. Hydrochloroflurocarbons-mainly used in the room ACs is now underway.

Long March of Mao was not just one route; it had various routes and sub routes that led Mao’s army to the North, and West of China. Similarly, there are various options to get rid of HCFCs. In last 2 years 14 new alternatives were commercialized, mostly for HCFCs and another 40 are in various stages of testing. Alternative routes include HFCs with high and low global warming potentials, its blends and Hydrocarbons, including some blends with low global warming potentials. Would putting in place of safety standard GB 4706.32-2012, as of 1 May 2013, kick off the regime of hydrocarbon or low global warming refrigerants and RAC revolution in China?

I had kept close contact with my Chinese colleagues working in the industries and research institutes on this issue. There are myriads of standards –nearly 50-that Chinese industries are required to follow while designing and using flammable refrigerants like hydrocarbons. Three are related to designation and safety related classification, eight related to hazardous chemicals, nine related to safety of refrigeration appliances, twenty related to safety in electrical appliances, three related to safety during installation, and four related other safety issues. This means that if Chinese manufacturers have to use hydrocarbons in Room AC, they should comply with about 50 standards and not all of them are linked logically.  On top of it, China Compulsory Certification (3C) has to be issued for the new designed product before you sell it in the China market. The issuance of 3C will be according to all the safety standards including that promulgated on 1st May.

Well, the complications do not stop there. If the Room ACs with flammable refrigerants like hydrocarbons have to be exported from China, it has to comply with another two sets of international standards: IEC and ISO. GB 4706 that came into effect on 1st May is as per IEC 60335-2-40 but not as per its latest version of 2010. Then there is another Chinese standard i.e. GB 9237 which equals to ISO 5149 which sets the rules about flammable refrigerants that are restricted to be used in places occupied by humans. Many are of the opinion that GB 9237 is more related with commercial refrigeration and AC and not to room ACs. However knowing that ISO 5149 seems to be in conflict with IEC 60335-2-40 at international level, on which GB 4706.32-2012 is based, the situation is getting as messy as the status of Mao’s Red Army even after it controlled and crossed Luding Bridge in May 1935.

Has the Long March to phase down HFCs, which are major alternatives to HCFCs, received the major jolt due to confusion in safety standards? Not at all.  Chinese government and industry have already chalked out the next path.

Firstly, the weaker flammability classification of A2L is being added in standards, clearing the way for other less flammable refrigerants. Secondly, GB standards are being considered for updating to bring it to latest IEC standards thereby clearing a way for R 290 and R 32 (and possibly R161) as alternatives to HCFCs. China has come to the terms that hydrocarbons is not the sole alternative to HCFCs. In the Long March of 1934, there was no single route to head for Beijing. For phase-out of HCFCs too, there are alternatives routes that have advantages of low global warming potential and more importantly better energy efficiency.

The march towards HFC phase down is not going to be easy. Industrialized countries themselves have generously used HFCs to get rid of HCFCs. Even today these countries focus on finding new refrigerants and researching more on its flammability, material compatibility and toxicity totally ignoring the optimization of the systems for energy efficiency.

I strongly feel that with the help of the collective actions and by forming the global alliance of stakeholders including those from industrialized countries the ‘ energy efficient HFC phase down’   is achievable. The collaborative research between developed and developing countries -apart from the subjects related to  flammability   characteristics, risk assessments in country specific conditions on hydrocarbons and refrigerants with weaker flammability like that of R 32 and HFOs- is needed on Energy Efficient RACs. A ‘Global Alliance for research and development on Energy Efficient HFC phase down’ is the need of the hour.

China did not have support for its long march in 1934-35 from other countries. This time in globalized world such support need to be forth coming. UNEP has role to play in getting IEC and ISO bodies together to provide advise on apparent conflicts, if any. Developing countries like China and India need to play prominent role in IEC and ISO bodies who may not be paying full attention to the emerging RAC issues in the developing countries. The countries with high ambient temperature would certainly not like to pay the penalty of higher energy consumption in RAC due to phase out of HCFCs. The world would benefit from UN’s catalyzing efforts and its conflicts resolution assistance arising due to International and national standards.

The developed and developing countries and their industries and research institutes could start the collaborative research to help setting standards and risk assessment. China could have opportunity of a real leapfrog, which industrialized countries totally by-passed when they indiscriminately used and still using HFCs like HFC 410A in RACs. China has opportunity to be a leader in HFC phase down. Luding Bridge has been crossed. Now still Yangtze River crossing is ahead.

And when China gets ready for long march, no one could stop it. Not even mighty Yangtze River.

By Rajendra Shende, Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP.



Rajendra Shende

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