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With environment ministry officials holding discussions with industry representatives on July 10, India is finalizing its position on HFC phase-out in preparation for a global meet in Paris later this month

A refrigerator being delivered (Image by John Hoey)

A refrigerator being delivered to an Indian home (Image by John Hoey)

India, a late and reluctant entrant into global discussions on phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – coolant gases used in refrigerators and air-conditioners and with high global warming potential, spent a busy week in July discussing the way forward with a practical plan of action.

An Indo-US bilateral task force held talks on July 8-9, and officials in the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change are scheduled to hold discussions with industry representatives on July 10 to streamline India’s position with evolving global consensus on the timeline for a phase out of HFCs.  The week’s discussions precede the 36th meeting of the open-ended working group (OEWG) convened in Paris on July 20-24 to discuss HFC phase-out under the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty to phase out chemicals that destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere. The ozone layer at the top of the atmosphere shields the earth from harmful ultra violet radiation.

After years of refusing to discuss a phase-out, India sprang a surprise this April, when it tabled its timeline proposal for phase out of HFCs, ahead of the 35th meeting of the OEWG on HFCs in Bangkok. The Indian timeline takes into consideration cost and technology constraints for its industry during a phase-out.

See India’s volte face in phasing down dangerous refrigerant gas

The Indian proposal includes starting HFC phase-out from 2031, and complete phase-out by 2050. It also asks for full compensation for the transition, as well as compensation for reduced profits incurred by gradual closure of existing plants using HFCs.

It is among five proposals put forward for a phase-out. The others are by a US-led group that includes Canada and Mexico; Micronesia and small island states, European Union, and a discussion paper jointly submitted by African countries.

Reactions from policy analysts are mixed.

India’s proposal signals “a strong and positive signal” about its willingness to take serious action on HFCs, Bhaskar Deol, from the India office of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), told

“It may not be a great proposal, as it allows the Indian industry to use HFCs as long as possible, but at least India is not seen as stone-walling or obstructing the process,” said Aditi Sawant from the New Delhi-based environment non-government organisation Centre for Science and Environment.

Super greenhouse gases

At the heart of the issue are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), gases that contain hydrogen, fluorine and carbon. Widely used as chilling gases in refrigerators and air-conditioners, as well as in the foam industry, they are one of the six greenhouse gases (GHGs) that need to be controlled under the Kyoto Protocol.

HFCs are “super GHGs” says Deol, given their huge global warming potential (GWP). Using a kilogram of HFC is akin to emitting 14,000 kg of carbon dioxide. However, they are short-lived in the atmosphere. As a result, controlling HFC emissions reaps significant climate benefits.

Emerging economies such as China and India are projected to witness a spiralling rise in the use of refrigerators, air conditioners and air-conditioned vehicles in coming years. While economies of these countries are growing at annual rates of 5-6%, HFC use is growing at the rate of 10-20% every year, says Deol.

There are high pressures on and expectations from these countries to phase out HFCs and replace them with more climate-friendly alternatives, in tandem with developed countries’ efforts.

Countries can no longer afford to ignore the need to replace HFCs. A 2011 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report observed that the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of most HFCs increased by approximately 8% per year from 2004 to 2008. Also, without intervention, annual emissions of HFCs are projected to rise to about 3.5 to 8.8 Giga tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.

This would be anywhere between seven and 45% of carbon dioxide emissions projected under different scenarios in reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UNEP said.

“This may challenge international efforts to keep average global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius this century — the target agreed at the UN climate convention meeting in 2009 and reaffirmed in Cancun in 2010,” UNEP added.

A May 2015 report of the India-based Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) and Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) forecasts that HFCs will contribute 5.4% of India’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2050. The cumulative global warming impact of HFC emissions by India between 2015 and 2050 will be 3.9%.

The report says that assuming a linear phase-down schedule after freezing HFC consumption in 2030-31, India can avoid 4.2 gigatonnes carbon dioxide equivalent emissions between 2010 and 2050, which is 64% of the total HFC emissions between 2010 and 2050 if consumption is not frozen.

Root of the problem

For developing countries, the root of the HFC problem can be traced to its predecessor chemical that once formed the backbone of coolants – chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that contain carbon, fluorine and chlorine. CFCs were first-generation refrigerants that destroyed the ozone layer at the top of the earth’s atmosphere.

The Montreal Protocol, which came into force in January 1989, mandated that air-conditioning and other industries replace CFCs with an intermediate substitute hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that contained an additional hydrogen atom; and finally substitute HCFCs by hydrofluorocarbons so that they did away with the harmful chlorine altogether. HCFCs are now regarded as the second-generation refrigerants, and HFCs the third generation.

But what was a solution for the ozone hole problem proved to be problem for global warming, given HFCs’ high global warming potential.

International efforts are now on to replace HFCs with climate-friendly fourth generation cooling gases, but these come even as many developing countries including India are yet to switch over completely to HFCs. The Indian industry, for example, has phased out CFCs completely, but only some companies have managed to switch from the intermediary HCFCs to HFCs. India has mandated reducing market sales of key HCFCs from 2015.

The Indian proposal, therefore, gives time to companies to switch to HFCs first by 2030, and then begin phasing them out by 2050 for more climate friendly alternatives that the country expects would be available by then.

Golden chance to leapfrog?

Policy analysts argue that this is the time for emerging economies to leapfrog to climate-friendly alternatives without having to go down the HFC route.

“Why should developing countries wait till 2030 and then start from the scratch again, to phase out HFCs?” asks CSE’s Sawant. Companies that have not yet switched to HFCs should try to leapfrog the transition and opt for climate-friendly alternatives straight away, she suggests, adding that an earlier start to the phase-out would help in faster complete elimination.

“As the consumption of HFCs is projected to be high, with refrigerators, air conditioners and air-conditioned automobiles becoming hot commodities as economies improve, the cost of phasing out HFCs will also be high,” says Sawant. “It will be a financially cumbersome process.”

However, Vaibhav Chaturvedi, who led a CEEW study in July 2014 on long-term modelling of India’s HFCs emissions from residential sector, disagrees, describing the Indian proposal as “good enough”.

“The Indian industry needs some flexibility in timelines as there are no clear alternative technologies in the market worldwide,” he observes. “There is a technological challenge. It is unreasonable to expect the Indian industry to transform itself within five or 10 years, when there are no clear technological alternatives available.”

Some Indian companies are, indeed, trying out alternative gases to different degrees, depending on the availability of technologies and their cost, says Deol. India’s foam sector, for example, is already shifting from HFCs to hydrocarbons.

The problem is money

In the air-conditioned vehicle sector, technologies are available abroad but are expensive and patented.  Examples include hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs). They also contain hydrogen, fluorine and carbon, but they have double bonds between the carbon atoms, unlike the single bonds for HFCs. The double bond reduces carbon emissions significantly.

The cost of alternatives is 5-30 times higher than current refrigerants used, “which is a problem in cost-sensitive markets such as India,” says Deol.  So while Europe and the US have mandated the use of alternatives in this sector over the next two years, “this movement has not started in India yet,” he adds. At any rate, no clear options are available for air-conditioning of big complexes such as malls.

Under the Montreal Protocol, industry can seek money to help transition to more ozone-friendly refrigerants. But the Indian proposal goes further by seeking the full cost of transition. This may well become a prickly issue at the Paris meet.

“Asking for more money makes sense only if it guarantees faster transition which will reap quicker climate benefits,” says Deol.

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