Heating Up

Jul 10th, 2014 | By | Category: Global Warming, UNFCCC

The government’s planned representation at the forthcoming meeting on the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances beginning in Paris this weekend cannot be called anything more than token. Certainly, no senior negotiators have been despatched with the brief to tend India’s interests. Is it the case, then, that no interests are at stake? Not so. For one, the Indian refrigeration sector, growing at a robust 10 per cent, will likely be affected by any agreements at Paris. Several developed countries will press for phasing out a set of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the main refrigerants used in refrigeration, air-conditioning, cold-chains, fire extinguishers, defence equipment and some modes of medical treatment. These chemicals, deemed safe for the earth’s protective ozone layer, had earlier replaced ozone-injurious refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons and hydro-chlorofluorocarbons. The problem is that HFCs, which the Protocol caused the world to switch to, can be hundreds of thousands of times more potent drivers of global warming than carbon dioxide – though, of course, released in much smaller quantities. If the Paris meet decides, for this reason, to bar the use of HFCs and substitute them with the more expensive proprietary products of a few companies, then some estimate the Indian refrigeration sector may be hit by around Rs 90,000 crore.

New Delhi has made several arguments in the past. It has said that this changeover shouldn’t be hasty, because of the big changes required; and that the Montreal Protocol is not the appropriate forum. Indeed global warming issues are usually the preserve of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Clearly, the consequences of the Montreal Protocol – probably the world’s most successful environmental treaty – clash with the aim of the UNFCCC, leading to this confusion of forums. India’s stand that the UNFCCC is the best forum makes sense in some ways. For one, questions of equity are considered under the climate talks aimed at crafting a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Besides, the new climate deal is expected to provide for financial assistance and technology transfer to enable developing countries to switch over to cleaner products. The Montreal convention, on the other hand, merely talks of compensating incremental costs – and that too for a limited period of six to 12 months. Adequate financial and technical aid is vital for developing countries, including India, to do away with HFCs as currently available substitutes can be about 20 times more expensive – besides being, in many cases, the intellectual property of a few multinational companies. Moreover, the alternative substances and technologies have not been tried and tested under Indian conditions, particularly from the standpoint of inflammability that is critical for local climate.

The Cabinet of the previous United Progressive Alliance government had decided to hold out against an HFC phase-out till at least 2015, by when the new world treaty on climate change might be finalised. India had, thus, with the active support of China, successfully blocked the United States proposal for discarding HFCs at the last round of Montreal Protocol talks. However, in the past week United States trade agencies and Chinese companies have raced to sign independent grant agreements on HFC replacement. As with climate talks in general, depending on China is not a useful strategy. Instead of holding out for the UNFCCC deal, India should have sent a high-level delegation with a prepared demand for a special deal specifically for India.



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