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India reiterates stand on ‘differentiated responsibility’ at green talks

By Rajendra Shende  

US President Barack Obama, in his 166-word eulogy in Time magazine that named Prime Minister Narendra Modi among the 100 most influential people in the world, termed him “India’s reformer-in-chief” who had “laid out an ambitious vision to …unleash India’s true economic potential while confronting climate change”.

Modi tweeted thanks to Obama. But his government, determined to walk the talk, went beyond. On the same day it submitted 11-page formal proposal to the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi to seize the stewardship in the global negotiations that implicated cross-cutting themes on climate change and ozone layer protection. Interestingly it was mainly because of India that the parleys were all but stalled for last six years and haunted the negotiating sessions year after year.

India’s proposal would be discussed in the extraordinary meeting of 197 countries in Bangkok next week. A second meeting will be held in late July in Paris and the final Meeting of the Parties will be in UAE the first week of November – before the climate change meeting in Paris.

India’s proposal is based on common but differentiated responsibility. It proposes developed countries going faster in the phase down of HFCs and developing countries going slower. It also requires financial and technology transfer assistance for developing countries.

It is a dramatic but well-studied and strategic proposal to phase-down production and consumption of hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs). These are greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have up to 12,000 times more global warming potential (GWP) than carbon dioxide – the most talked about GHG. HFCs are part of six GHGs included in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, whose emissions are to be reduced. HFCs are primarily used as refrigerants, for example in car air conditioning and refrigerators, and in insulating foams.

The story of HFCs emerging is as stunning as it can get. The most successful international environmental agreement so far – the Montreal Protocol – aimed to protect the Ozone layer by eliminating ozone-depleting gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). HFCs, along with other gases were developed by the industry to replace CFCs. HFCs are ozone friendly – but not climate friendly. Eliminating CFCs and using HFCs was like going from the frying pan to fire. The movement against HFCs started gathering momentum after 2010, but HFCs continued to be the fastest growing greenhouse gases in much of the world, increasing at 10-15 percent per year, particularly in the developing countries and slower in developed economies, which were reeling under financial crisis and when the major industrial manufacturing was shifting to emerging economies.

When the Montreal Protocol was celebrating its success in 2010, ozone layer recovery was considered to be at the cost of global warming. Surprisingly, India refused to even discuss the amendment of reduction of HFCs, proposed by Micronesia, the US, Canada and Mexico. At the global negotiations, India stalled any discussions on the issue, stating that it has just phased out CFCs by employing HFCs in most of the applications and hence, was not ready for yet another transition so soon. India argued that effective, affordable and safe alternatives to HFCs did not exist. It also resorted to legal and procedural conundrums by wondering if controls on HFCs are the mandate of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and not Montreal Protocol on ozone layer protection.

India’s political leaders, since 2010, continued to please international communities, particularly in G-20 meetings and in summits with Obama, by agreeing to action on HFCs, but in international negotiations the country played different tunes to fudge the debate.

Come Modi, and transformation and a forward-looking stance is evident. The pros and cons of HFC reduction were assessed and reforms in the approach were found to be inevitable. It was realized that reduction in HFCs would provide the fastest and the most desirable climate mitigation in the near-term. It also will build critical momentum for a successful outcome in Paris for the challenging climate negotiations in December.

Proposing a HFC phase-down under the well-established institution of the Montreal Protocol would give obvious advantage of financial assistance, transfer of the latest technology and incentives for the developing countries as realized under the CFC phase out. Early phase-down and selecting better energy-efficient technology was considered to be part of Modi’s priority of inclusive development.

As per researchers, the HFC phase-down can provide mitigation equivalent to 100 giga tonnes of CO2 by 2050 and avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of century. As the atmospheric lifetime of HFCs is only 10-15 years as against 100 years in case of CO2, the phase-down of HFCs could lead to early benefits.

In other words, the adverse impact of climate change could be pushed back by 10-15 years. A simultaneous effort to embrace super-efficient appliances in India, including room air conditioners, can effectively double the climate mitigation from phasing down HFCs, as per a report by Indian researchers at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Their analysis showed that moving to super-efficient room air conditioners could save for India enough electricity to avoid building up to 120 medium-sized power plants in the next 15 years.

Modi is clearly changing the climate of climate-change negotiations to be held in Paris at the end of this year.

(19.04.2015 – Rajendra Shende, an IIT-alumni, is chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and former director UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com)


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