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Explained: A Cool Shift

India submitted its proposal for amending the Montreal Protocol to bring HFCs within its ambit.

Written by Amitabh Sinha
Updated: April 20, 2015 2:44:01 am
Montreal Protocol HFCs have a greenhouse gas effect, just like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), and contribute to global warming.

India on Thursday submitted its proposal for amending the Montreal Protocol to bring HFCs within its ambit. It was seen as a major climbdown for India, which till recently had been opposing the push for including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol.

What are HFCs?

HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, compounds of hydrogen, fluorine and carbon, are gases that are commonly used as refrigerants and coolants in refrigerators and air-conditioners, in fire extinguishers, furniture making, as solvents for cleaning, and other purposes. Nineteen of these HFCs are used in different kinds of appliances.

What is the Montreal Protocol?

Montreal Protocol, which came into being in 1987, seeks to eliminate production and use of ozone-depleting
substances, mainly CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons). CFCs and later HCFCs were being used for everything that HFCs are used now for, but it was found that these were depleting the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. As CFCs and HCFCs started being phased out, HFCs, which are harmless to the ozone layer, started replacing them.

So what is the problem with HFCs now?

HFCs have a greenhouse gas effect, just like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), and contribute to global warming. In fact, the global warming potential of some HFCs are thousands of times more than carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. One particular HFC, called HFC-23 (chemically CHF3), which is used in very low temperature refrigeration and fire control, is known to have about 12,000 times more global warming potential than CO2. So while the HFCs solved one problem, they created another.

How does the world want to deal with this problem?

There is a general agreement that HFCs must be phased out, just like CFCs and HCFCs. Some countries, like India, wanted it to happen through the international climate change regime, under Kyoto Protocol, as is the case for other greenhouse gases. However, developed countries wanted HFCs to be put under the Montreal Protocol, considering the urgency of the problem. Montreal Protocol is considered to be a highly successful mechanism, having already eliminated the most dangerous of CFCs in just about two decades. But the Montreal Protocol would need to be amended because currently its specific mandate is to phase out “ozone-depleting” substances which HFCs are not.

Why didn’t India want to put HFCs under Montreal Protocol?

On the face of it, India’s objection was procedural. Montreal Protocol deals with ozone-depleting substances, which HFCs are not. These are greenhouse gases and are already listed amongst those that need to be progressively reduced under the Kyoto Protocol that seeks to control emissions of greenhouse gases. India’s argument was that there was no need to change this arrangement. Behind this argument, however, were practical considerations. The Montreal Protocol is legally binding on all its signatories. That means each of the 190-plus countries would have to mandatorily phase out HFCs if the amendment is carried through. The Kyoto Protocol, on the other hand, puts “differentiated responsibility” on developed and developing countries to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. If HFCs continue to remain under the Kyoto Protocol, only the rich and industrialised countries, a group of about 40 nations in the current climate change regime, would be legally bound to phase them out. The others, including India and China, are not mandated to reduce their emissions, but if they do cut down on HFCs, they can claim ‘carbon credits’ and sell them in the carbon market to earn revenues.

So, what explains India’s change of mind?

The turnaround has been been in the making for at least two years now. The declaration that emerged out of the St Petersburg G-20 summit in September 2013, talked about “using the expertise and the institutions of the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)”. India was party to that declaration. A year later, almost the exact language was used in the joint statement after the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama in Washington. When Obama came visiting in January, the joint statement said the “President and Prime Minister reaffirmed their prior understanding from September 2014 concerning the phase-down of HFCs and agreed to cooperate on making concrete progress in the Montreal Protocol this year”.

Instead of just agreeing to the amendment, India has tried to be proactive by putting forward its own proposal. India has not spelt out the reasons for changing its stand, but some things are obvious. Carbon markets are no longer lucrative and the global architecture on climate change is slated to be significantly altered later this year. India has also demanded establishment of a finance mechanism wherein the developing countries can claim compensation for the costs of converting chemical plants to adopt new technologies.

What else is in India’s proposal?

India has asked for a 15-year grace period for developing countries to phase out HFCs and shift to newer technologies. That means whatever deadline is fixed for developed countries (the likely year is 2035 to reach 15 per cent of the current levels), developing countries should get another 15 years. Most countries are agreeable to this demand.

Do alternatives to HFCs exist?

Yes, though there are no single set of compounds that can replace the HFCs. The European Union is already said to have been using cleaner alternatives in almost 90 per cent of its refrigerators and 25 per cent of its industrial air

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