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Straws in the wind: Phase-out of HFCs is low-hanging fruit, Kigali likely to deliver a deal

India is flexible; things have moved fast since Paris; consensus on climate change is stronger than ever

Written by Amitabh Sinha |
September 28, 2016 1:31:22 am
Paris Agreement, climate change agreement, hfc, hfc india, kigali meeting, montreal agreement, global warming potential, india news, climate change, indian express FILE- In this Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015 file photo, an artwork entitled ‘One Heart One Tree’ by artist Naziha Mestaoui is displayed on the Eiffel tower ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, in Paris. (AP Photo/File)

It is almost certain now that the Paris Agreement on climate change, negotiated last year in the French capital, would enter into force this year itself, possibly even before the next annual climate conference begins in Marrakech, Morocco, in the second week of November. But another part of the global effort to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is still to be played out. Countries are meeting in Kigali in Rwanda in the middle of next month to finalise a decision on the phasing out of a set of chemicals called HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, which have very high global warming potential, through the existing mechanism of the Montreal Protocol, which entered into force in 1989.

The swiftness with which the world moved to finalise the Paris Agreement last year, overcoming great uncertainties, and to then bring it close to its entry into force within nine months, gives plenty of indication about the outcome of the Kigali meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP). There is little doubt now that the amendment to the Montreal Protocol, to include HFCs within its ambit, would be agreed to in one form or the other. That would complete the global architecture in the fight against climate change.

HFCs, used mostly in the refrigerator and air-conditioning industry, are quantitatively insignificant when compared to the common carbon-based greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide or methane, but are much more potent in terms of their global warming potential (GWP). Some of them are hundreds or thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. They contribute to less than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions as of now, but since their demand is growing, they could comprise almost 20% of emissions by 2050 in the business-as-usual scenario.

On the other hand, it is believed that elimination of HFCs by 2050 would prevent about 0.5 degrees of global temperature rise by the end of this century. It is no surprise, therefore, that the world sees a quick end to the use of HFCs as crucial to the overall climate objective of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 2 degrees from pre-industrial times.

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In view of the still-growing demand for HFCs, particularly in countries like India, and their very high GWP, it was thought best to deal with them through the Montreal Protocol, considered to be the most successful international law on environment, rather than only through the Paris Agreement.

The Montreal Protocol mandates the phasing out of all ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons, the original set of chemicals used in the refrigerator and air-conditioning industry. HFCs came in as substitute for CFCs because they were not ozone-depleting. The Montreal Protocol allows the inclusion, within its mandate, substances that are not ozone-depleting but harm the environment in other ways. It is believed that putting HFCs in the Montreal Protocol would lead to a swifter and more effective phasing out, since the Paris Agreement is still in its infancy.

Like in the case of the Paris Agreement, which India has decided to ratify on October 2, New Delhi has a key role to play at the Kigali meeting. It was, until last year, one of the biggest sceptics of including HFCs in the Montreal Protocol, but has come around since then. But there still are significant differences over the manner in which developed and developing countries would be asked to phase out HFCs, and how the developing countries would be compensated for the financial burden imposed on their industry. India has put forward its own proposal for amendment of the Protocol.

Over the last few weeks, in keeping with the growing momentum for an agreement over the amendment in Kigali, India has been giving enough indications of being “flexible”. Officials have been saying that the issue no longer is whether the amendment is needed — rather, it is how best to accommodate everyone’s concerns. India has also said it is willing to consider an early baseline period, 2024-26 instead of the more preferable 2026-28, whose average HFC emission would be used to calculate the amount of emissions to be reduced in progressive stages.

The other key concern, of course, is the money required by the industry to shift to non-HFC alternatives. Research by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water has shown that economy-wide costs of India completely eliminating HFCs by 2050 would be about Rs 90,000 crore, if the timeline proposed by India is followed. Swifter timelines, suggested in other proposals, would require much more money. India wants developed countries to make these monies available to it, and to other developing countries in a similar position, to enable the switchover.

There are several other differences that India, and other developing countries, have with the richer nations on how HFCs have to be eliminated. But compared to the differences that existed prior to the climate change conference in Paris last year, these seem to be very minor hurdles. Even two months before the Paris conference, a great degree of uncertainty persisted over the outcome. But Paris delivered an agreement that was much more robust than most people were expecting.

The phasing out of HFCs is a low-hanging fruit in comparison. And the momentum that has built up following the Paris Agreement seems strong enough to force an agreement in Kigali as well. There has never been a stronger consensus on climate change.

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