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India has surprised the world by making a U-turn on phasing down harmful hydrofluorocarbons(HFCs) – refrigerant mixture that is 6,350 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period. While the world has welcomed the green move, Indian manufacturers are blaming the government for caving in to pressure.

A Godrej manufacturing unit that produces propane-based environment-friendly air-conditioners (Image by hydrocarbons21)

Godrej manufacturing unit that produces propane-based environment-friendly air-conditioners (Image by hydrocarbons21)

India’s volte face in agreeing to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol has come as a surprise to industrialised countries as well as refrigeration and air-conditioning firms here. Industrialised countries have welcomed the change. Not so the Indian firms, which are talking of Prime Minister Narendra Modi succumbing to American pressure.

The decision was announced prior to a meeting in Bangkok in April of countries which are signatories to the Montreal Protocol, which seeks to reduce the threat to the environment from substances that deplete the ozone layer at the top of the earth’s atmosphere.

HFCs are also used in fire-protection, aerosols and foams, all of which have wide applications in industrial and home use.

India earlier opposed the phase-out of HFCs, which are a substitute for the damaging hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), under the Montreal Protocol, due to the lack of alternative gases.

It wanted to negotiate the matter of HFC phase-out under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since HFCs do not deplete ozone and therefore do not figure under the Montreal Protocol. However, they have a high global warming potential (GWP).

In 2013, the Obama administration convinced China to begin phasing out its HFCs. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US in September, he indicated that India would be ready to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol. The US has targeted emerging economies like China and India, proposing to amend the Montreal Protocol to encompass HFCs.

Ravinder Mehta, secretary of India’s Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Manufacturers Association (RAMA) told that he was surprised at the government’s stand, since the industry had opposed this from the start. It wanted a longer timeframe to effect the change.

Asked why he thought the government had changed its stance, he said: “It is reading like the PM and the US President have come to an understanding: you need me here, I need you there.”

Under the clean development mechanism of the UNFCCC, India was already earning carbon credits for reducing its consumption of HCFCs. It is not clear whether developing countries will be similarly compensated for HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.

In its amendment proposal to the Montreal Protocol, India asked for compensation for “full conversion costs”, full second conversion costs wherever transitional technologies are deployed, and “compensation for lost profit streams for gradual closure” of HFC production facilities.

The New Delhi-based think-tank, Centre for Science and Environment, supported a resolution at UNFCCC to move HFCs to the Montreal Protocol “but with clear agreement that the differentiation between developed and developing countries will stay. The principle of equity, as established by UNFCCC, will underpin all negotiations on this issue in the protocol.”

India’s amendment differs substantially from that mooted by the US, Canada and Mexico, but is seen as breaking the logjam between developed and developing countries.

Clare Perry, head of climate at the militant Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in the UK and Washington DC, which cracks down on anti-green crimes, described the move as “a major opportunity to begin negotiations on the most immediate, cost-effective and tangible global measure to address climate change.”

Her colleague, Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA International climate policy analyst, added, “It is refreshing to see India come to the negotiating table for these potent greenhouse gases as India has historically been opposed to such an amendment.”

“With the European Union also expected to submit a proposal, it is a clear signal that there has been significant political progress on HFCs and instead of questioning whether HFCs should be addressed under the Protocol, countries are now trying to answer how to address them.”

India’s demand

India calls for a 15-year grace period in the phase-out for developing countries “to ensure availability of safe, technically proven, energy-efficient, environment friendly, economically viable, commercially available, matured non-HFC technologies.”

It proposes that the phase-out baselines for industrialised countries should be the average of 2013-2015 consumption with a freeze in 2016. The baseline for developing countries should be the average of 2028-2030 consumption with a freeze in 2031. The phase-down with “a flexible approach” should cap 15% of the baseline in 2035 and 2050 respectively.

As Japan Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News reports, “The North American amendment proposal suggests a gradual phase-down with a plateau, as opposed to a phase-out. Like the Indian amendment, it proposes separate provisions for non-Article 5 and Article 5 phase-down of production and consumption.” Article 5 of the Montreal Protocol lists developing countries.

The baseline for developing countries is 100% of average HFC consumption and production from 2011-2013. For non-Article 5 countries, India proposes that the baseline is also calculated as 100% of average HFC consumption and production from 2011-2013. For Article 5 countries it proposes a 20% reduction in 2026 with an 85% phase-down by 2046. For non-Article 5 countries, it proposes a 10% phase-down in 2019, with an 85% phase-down by 2036.

At the Bangkok meet, Mehta of RAMA warned against the accelerated phase-out of HCFCs while there were no “safe, economically viable, low-global warming potential alternatives.” According to him, “Industry is unable to afford multiple conversions.”

India’s refrigeration and air-conditioning industry was growing at 8% per year and wanted to achieve the 15%-plus growth it achieved prior to 2011. “Industry has to overcome the uncertainties created by international regulatory frameworks,” Mehta asserted.

There was the need for greater research and development and demonstration projects in developing countries, where average temperatures are far higher than in most developed countries.

Patent problem

India is wary of being cajoled to switch to hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs), which are a fourth generation refrigerant, after chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), HCFCs and HFCs.  These have zero ozone depletion potential and low GWP. But these gases are patented by DuPont/Honeywell in the US and Daikin in China.

Chemical companies are eyeing the huge Indian market. According to RAMA and the US-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 116 million air-conditioners will be installed in this country by 2030 – 20 times the number in 2013.

Jitendra Bhambure of Blue Star, also a RAMA spokesperson, told, “How do we know the final shape of things to come? Alternatives to HFCs are not proven and there are intellectual property rights (IPR) issues. What is the definition of low GWP?

“The developed world first adopted HFCs. Are we ready with an alternative? It is not only the cost but a proven technology. There is a R&D perspective and patents are involved.”

At the Bangkok meet, Bhambure called for an economic impact study in the country where the cost of patents on new refrigerants and their applications were analysed.

Indian exception

The one Indian company that has leapfrogged the HCFC phase-out is Godrej, using a natural hydrocarbon-based propane refrigerant, which is environment-friendly in both respects, not damaging the ozone hole or using too much energy.

Anup Bhargava, Godrej air-conditioners project manager, told that in the top-rated five-star class of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, Godrej is the only Indian company to use propane, which is a patent-free traditional technology.

The catch is that this gas is inflammable. However, in the last two years, it has sold 175,000 such room air-conditioners, accounting for 11% in the five-star category and not a single explosion had taken place.

According to Mehta, “industry is indecisive about using flammable refrigerants and is awaiting safe technologies.” There are concerns about servicing refrigerators and air-conditioners using propane, the transport and storage of this gas and, not least, the responsibility of liability for damages.

Bhargava told that the smaller room air-conditioners, using up to 340 gm of gas, were safe, especially because it would be vented outside in the open. “What is more, in Godrej we install these devices ourselves.”

He conceded that “propane is not a ready-made solution for all air-conditioners, particularly those using more than 370 gm of gas.”

China has three-quarters of the world market for air-conditioners. Bhargava told “In India, Godrej is the only brand to use hydrocarbons and many Chinese players like Gree/Media/TCL are planning the same but have not launched commercially.”

In 2011, Gree Electric Appliances Inc. planned to produce 100,000 such devices, said to be the first original equipment worldwide to use such technology. The project was funded by the German government. Godrej also received 500,000 Euro for this under Germany’s international climate initiative.

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