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Obama-Modi Talk HFCs: Build Hope for a Deal

By Avipsa Mahapatra, International Climate Policy Analyst

Over the past few years my friends and family in India have heard me talking again and again about “phasing out hydrofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol.” But saying this is like speaking another language to them. So when they heard President Obama mention exactly those words in his speech at a press conference with Indian Prime Minister Modi earlier this week, I was bombarded with messages of excitement and curiosity.

Although there is a lot of expert opinion about whether the steps announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi to combat climate change are sufficient—particularly compared to the emissions reductions agreement Obama reached with China this past November—not much has been said about the U.S./India agreement to cooperate on reducing emissions of the potent “super” greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

What is this statement really about?

In their announcement, the two leaders stated, “We’ve agreed to work together to make concrete progress this year towards phasing out hydrofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol.”

HFCs are greenhouse gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide; they are primarily used in refrigeration and air conditioning. Air conditioner and refrigerator use is rising dramatically in India and is likely to grow up to 20 percent per year because of rising energy demands which will inevitably increase HFC emissions. With this explosive growth in air conditioning and refrigeration use, India’s HFC emissions are expected to exceed those of the United States, which is currently the largest consumer of HFCs.

Although more than 120 countries, including the United States, support an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs, India has been one of the few countries opposed to the Amendment proposal. The Obama/Modi statement is an indication that India has reduced its opposition to an Amendment proposal and is willing to work collaboratively to find a solution under the Montreal Protocol forum.

What has happened since the last announcement?

In a sign that India is moving forward, Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment and Forests, participated at the Montreal Protocol Meeting of Parties (MOP) last November calling for a “revolution on climate change” at the Paris climate conference in November 2015. He also acknowledged the problem posed by the proliferation of HFCs and rounded his address off with a list of specific asks, including more trialing of alternatives to HFCs in India, as well as greater technology transfer between developed and developing countries. Another sign of progress is the revival of the Indo-U.S. HFC Task Force aimed at resolving lingering issues about the HFC Phase-down, including alternatives, technology transfer and finance. The Task Force has met twice since November 2014, with government and industry from each country visiting the other.

What to watch for going forward?

In order to move an HFC phase down forward, the Montreal Protocol has planned for a two-day technical workshop in April with a focus on HFCs, including alternatives for HFCs in air conditioning in hotter climates. The workshop will be followed by three days of talks on technical and financial issues related to HFCs. These meetings could put real momentum behind the U.S./India agreement on HFCs.

Transitioning to HFC-free alternatives will also put India’s industry at the forefront of supplying the next generation of HFC-free refrigerants and equipment on par with China, the EU, and the United States. While some of the world’s biggest markets, including the United States, Japan, and EU, are already beginning to transition to HFC-free refrigeration and air conditioning, the decision makes business sense for India too. However, an even more compelling reason to phase down HFCs is that it provides Indian industry an opportunity to use incremental funding from the Montreal Protocol to improve the energy efficiency of air conditioners, refrigerators, and other appliances domestically. Working collaboratively will allow India to proactively control its own refrigeration and air conditioning market, encourage the United States to share technological advancements and continue as a leader in climate change mitigation, and prevent India from converting into a dead-end expensive technology.

Together, India and the United States can work together to ensure the largest, fastest, cheapest, and most effective piece of climate change mitigation is implemented in the next year or two. The climate benefits of an HFC phase down would be equivalent to mitigating 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050! It will also prevent global warming of 0.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. So the big question now is, will India support an agreement this year to phase down HFCs at the Montreal Protocol this year? We will wait and watch.

As Obama rightly said at the press conference: “India’s voice is very important on this issue. Perhaps no country could potentially be more affected by the impacts of climate change and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India.”

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