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Cooling gases that are warming the world have to be phased out of India, but the industry is doing little about it in the absence of a long-term policy

Hydrofluorocarbons used in home air-conditioners are warming up the planet (Photo by Sławomir Kowalewski)

Hydrofluorocarbons used in home air-conditioners are warming up the planet (Photo by Sławomir Kowalewski)

Gases that we use in our refrigerators and air-conditioners have been the villains of the world for long. The first generation chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) depleted the ozone layer at the top of the earth’s atmosphere, thus raising the risk of skin cancer. That was phased out under the Montreal Protocol.

Second-generation hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC) did the same, though to a lesser extent. They were phased out as well. Current generation hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) do not damage the ozone layer, but heat up the entire atmosphere, adding to global warming.

The Montreal Protocol was amended in 2016 at the Rwandan capital Kigali to phase out HFCs. India got a pass, negotiating to curtail its HFC emissions by 85% before 2047, though many other countries have to phase out much earlier.

At a recent roundtable organized by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) on India’s planned HFC phasedown, it became clear that the country’s air-conditioning and refrigeration industry is yet to take significant steps towards this transition.

And this is in a situation where India’s air-conditioning demand for residential and commercial use is expected to increase 11 times the current demand by 2038.

In a study done in partnership with the Norwegian Environment Agency, CEEW has interviewed more than 60 factories and firms that need large scale refrigeration, refrigerant manufacturers and suppliers, component manufacturers and suppliers, industry association representatives, consultants and service providers.

Unprepared sector

The researchers found a clear lack of preparedness across the sector, a finding that was corroborated at the roundtable. Representatives of large refrigeration firms talked of alternatives that are known to be harmful to all forms of life around the places where such plants are set up, as is currently being done at the Pragati Maidan exhibition complex in New Delhi. They had no answer when challenged, except to say research and development of next generation refrigerant gases would need long-term policy incentives.

The key issue was policy certainty. A representative of a firm that manufactures home air-conditioners told on the sidelines, “We are happy to move to a new gas in our ACs, but we find it very difficult if that new gas is banned after a year or two. We have to make big changes in our assembly line, and that’s an expensive process. Scientists need to be sure about the safety of the next gas they are recommending.”

And it may not be the same gas for every use. Cars, for example, may not be able to use some of the new refrigerants being examined for homes, offices, factories or malls. It’s a new field that needs to be developed urgently.

Need for long-term policy

Geeta Menon, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, acknowledged the need for long-term policy at the roundtable and sought suggestions from all sectors of the industry. None of the industry representatives responded.

It appeared clear to an observer that the 2047 deadline has lulled the Indian industry into apathy and a feeling that it can be business as usual in the foreseeable future. That attitude is dangerous for the planet, for our health and for the sanctity of promises India has made to the world.

Shikha Bhasin of CEEW, lead author of the study, said, “A deliberate focus on integrating India’s international environmental and national development imperative is the need of the hour. India released the draft National Cooling Action Plan (NCAP), the first country to do so. We now need to take our study to adequately acknowledge the impacts that industry will have to navigate when meeting our Kigali commitments.” See: India to cut cooling costs in hotter country

Bhasin agreed that “policy certainty is a must for Indian industry to create supply-chain readiness and to encourage investments towards alternative refrigerants with low global warming potential (GWP).”

Apurupa Gorthi, also of CEEW and co-author of the study, said, “We must focus on understanding the technology challenges and barriers to HFC phase-down, and replacing HFCs with a new generation of alternative chemicals and products that are efficient and climate-friendly.”

Nils Ragnar Kamsvåg, Norway’s Ambassador to India, said, “With a growing economy, India’s air conditioning market continues to grow rapidly. India must shift to sustainable and energy efficient technological solutions to phase down HFCs. I am glad that CEEW and the Norwegian Environment Agency have collaborated to map policy alternatives to accelerate the phase down.”

The question is how

Based on the interviews, the study has recommended a medium-term GWP ceiling on refrigerant gases for each application. Most of the industry representatives interviewed told the researchers that it made more sense to limit potential greenhouse gas emissions and then let firms choose the technology and the refrigerants, rather than fix specific gases to be used.

India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency already awards stars based on the GWP of refrigerators and ACs. The industry thinks products with more stars will sell better if buyers get an incentive.

The problem for homebuyers is that they may buy a fridge or an AC with low GWP, but when the maintenance man comes, he fills it up with an old, probably-banned high GWP refrigerant. Industry representatives told the researchers that for the HFC phasedown to work, implementation would be critical. These include institutionalising measurement, review, and verification (MRV); controlling stockpiling; and regulating the availability and pricing of refrigerants to avoid market manipulation.

Of course, a big issue is that few of the people buying a fridge or an AC are aware of the problem with the cooling gas inside. This goes for the maintenance men as well. The study and everybody else agrees on the need for a major awareness drive.

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