Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

ONE ITEM on the agenda of the much-dis­cussed Naren­dra Modi-Barack Obama meet­ing that has In­dian com­men­ta­tors flum­moxed is hy­droflu­o­ro­car­bons (hfcs). The joint state­ment is­sued after the meet­ing of the two heads of states says rather am­bigu­ously that the two sides agreed to co­op­er­ate on “next steps to tackle the chal­lenge posed by hfcs to global warm­ing.”

hfc has been a bug­bear in the In­dia-US re­la­tion­ship. The US wants to be­gin ne­go­ti­a­tions for the phase-out of hfc—a chem­i­cal used in a wide range of in­dus­trial and house­hold prod­ucts like re­frig­er­a­tors, air-con­di­tion­ers and sol­vents—un­der the UN’s Mon­treal Pro­to­col. In­dia ar­gues that the Mon­treal Pro­to­col is for pro­tect­ing the world from ozone layer de­ple­tion and hfc is harm­ful be­cause it con­trib­utes to cli­mate change, so dis­cus­sions should take place un­der the UN’s cli­mate con­ven­tion (unfccc).

In fact, hfc is the chem­i­cal that the world in­tro­duced to phase out hy­drochlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bon (hcfc), an in­terim sub­sti­tute for chlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bon (cfc). Both hcfc and cfc were in­dicted for dam­ag­ing the strato­spheric ozone layer that blocks harm­ful ul­tra­vi­o­let rays.

Seem­ingly ,the US is driven by green con­cerns, as hfcs are green­house gases 2,000 times more po­tent than car­bon diox­ide.But the out­come de­pends on the al­ter­na­tive the world chooses. When this chem­i­cal was in­tro­duced it was un­der­stood that it would be bad for the cli­mate.The world de­cided to solve one prob­lem by cre­at­ing another.

In the past decade, the use of hfc has grown by 8-10 per cent an­nu­ally, mostly in the US, Europe, Ja­pan and Aus­tralia. Now de­vel­op­ing coun­tries will be­gin to phase out hcfc. Should they first phase into hfc and then phase out of it be­cause it is bad for cli­mate? Or should they leapfrog to new sub­stances, good for both ozone and cli­mate?

This is where the pol­i­tics of tech­nol­ogy be­comes murky. The same com­pa­nies that first in­vented cfc and then prof­ited from its phase-out are now ready with another al­ter­na­tive.It is not a co­in­ci­dence that US com­pa­nies DuPont and Honey­well are pro­mot­ing hy­droflu­o­roolefins (hfos) for air-con­di­tion­ing and hfc-1234yf for car air-con­di­tion­ing. But th­ese new gen­er­a­tion chem­i­cals are plagued with same prob­lems. hfo is good for ozone, has less global warm­ing po­ten­tial but still not so good for cli­mate be­cause it is en­ergy-in­ef­fi­cient. Since in­di­rect emis­sions (due to en­ergy use) from ap­pli­ances are re­spon­si­ble for over 80 per cent of the prob­lem, this chem­i­cal will add to cli­mate change.

But the com­mer­cial in­ter­ests are huge and pow­er­ful, hence the push to move dis­cus­sions to the Mon­treal Pro­to­col, where the US is a party and things can be ex­pe­dited. The In­dian gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion is equally driven by com­merce. Its four com­pa­nies that made ozone-de­plet­ing cfc got a wind­fall of US $82 mil­lion to move to hcfc. Now they want to be paid for the next phase-out to hfc. Worse, they were paid mil­lions of dol­lars to re­duce the green­house gas emis­sions from hcfc plants un­der the cli­mate con­ven­tion. It is, there­fore, in their in­ter­est to keep the ne­go­ti­a­tions un­der the Mon­treal Pro­to­col to phase into an ozone-friendly gas, which is bad for cli­mate.

The Modi-Obama joint state­ment in­di­cates a move­ment ahead by recog­nis­ing the need to use the Mon­treal Pro­to­col to re­duce hfc and to con­tinue to ac­count un­der the unfccc. This is good. Now the real work be­gins.It is im­por­tant for In­dia to take a proac­tive po­si­tion.It should first get in­dus­tri­alised coun­tries to agree to an am­bi­tious phase-out of hfc by 2020, in­stead of 2035. Next, it should ask for changes in the Mon­treal Pro­to­col so that coun­tries can leapfrog the flu­o­ri­nated chem­i­cals tread­mill. Al­ter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies, rated on the ba­sis of their life-cy­cle en­ergy emis­sions, are avail­able. For in­stance, some com­pa­nies are mov­ing to hy­dro­car­bons, such as propane and bu­tane, for re­frig­er­a­tion and air-con­di­tion­ing. The US still does not al­low this shift, ar­gu­ing in­flamma­bil­ity prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with th­ese off-patented tech­nolo­gies. This is what needs to be changed.

The ques­tion is: profit or planet?

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