Mon, Oct 17, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Climate accord could push air-conditioning out of India’s reach

By Ellen Barry and Coral Davenport  /  NY Times News Service, DELHI

A thrill goes down Lane 12, C Block, Kamalpur, every time another working-class family brings home its first air conditioner. Switched on for a few hours, usually to cool a room where the whole family sleeps, it transforms life in this suffocating concrete labyrinth where the heat reached 47?C in May.

“You wake up totally fresh,” said Kaushilya Devi, a housewife, whose husband bought a unit in May.

“I wouldn’t say we are middle class, but we are closer,” she said.

However, 5,955km away in Kigali, Rwanda, negotiators from more than 170 countries gathered this week to complete an accord that would phase out the use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) worldwide, and with them the cheapest air conditioners that are just coming within reach of people like Devi.

Millions of Indians might mark the transition from poverty with the purchase of their first air conditioner, but as those purchases ease suffering in one of the planet’s hottest countries, they are contributing profoundly to the heating of the planet.

HFCs function as a sort of super-greenhouse gas, with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.

While they account for just a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, scientists have said a surge in the use of HFC-fueled air conditioners would alone contribute to more than 0.5?C of atmospheric warming over the coming century.

That is a lot in an environment where just 1.7?C of warming could be enough to tip the planet into an irreversible future of rising sea levels, more powerful storms and deluges, extreme drought, food shortages and other devastating effects.

The emerging HFC ban, nearly seven years in the making, has not drawn the same kind of attention as last year’s Paris agreement on climate change. The Kigali talks focused on a narrow slice of the economy — just the HFCs in air conditioners and refrigerators.

However, the deal, which was completed on Friday, could have as much or more of an effect on climate change. Unlike the Paris accord, the emerging Kigali agreement would have the force of international law, a legal requirement that rich countries give poor countries money to help them comply, and trade and economic sanctions against countries that do not.

Between 6 percent and 9 percent of Indian households use air-conditioning, and the purchase of a first unit — not a second or a third — is driving growth, New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute director-general Ajay Mathur said.

Every time government salaries are raised, air conditioner purchases surge, as civil servants gain confidence that they will be able to pay higher electric bills, he said.

“It is me of 10 years ago. It is many of my younger colleagues,” Mathur said. “It is my driver, who after 20 years working for me, bought his first air conditioner. It is a marker of social mobility.”

However, a new global deal committing the world to a rapid phaseout of HFCs would mean that many Indians would never “be able to get the benefits that go with air-conditioning,” Mathur said

A fast phaseout comes with big wins for the US, since many of the replacement chemicals are manufactured by US chemical companies like Dow and Honeywell. However, those manufacturers concede that their products are more expensive than HFCs.

“The replacements are more flammable and toxic,” said Stephen Yurek, president of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an advocacy organization. “So there is a need to make sure the equipment is better designed and maintained, a need to make sure that when it is installed, it is done correctly and safely. You need better-trained people to do all that, and that will be more expensive.”

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