Sunday, October 23, 2016

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The Kigali climate deal - A great start to a difficult marathon

A sunny Saturday in Miami is a god-send to get the perfect tan. The fashionable tan could instead have been a health disaster had there not been the benign Ozone layer in our atmosphere which screens UV rays from reaching us. This layer has been protected through the Montreal Protocol that was signed by countries way back in 1987. Since then, substances called chlorofluorocarbons (that deplete the ozone layer) have been almost phased out and substituted by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). No one had anticipated that this substitute could end up creating an even graver problem – of warming planet Earth. No one had thought that such warming could cause droughts and floods in Rwanda, a small central African nation, that far from enjoying, struggled to live through each Saturday.

Amidst all this chaos for survival, people from different communities in Rwanda, come together on the last Saturday of every month, to celebrate a cultural festival called “umagunda”. They work together to find a solution to a common problem at hand. It isn’t surprising that when more than 190 nations with varied standards of living, interests and priorities regarding climate change had to come together to solve the problem of HFCs, they chose Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, as the perfect location for this summit. It isn’t a mere co-incidence that they actually managed to put aside their differences and come up with a solution, in the form of Kigali agreement, on 15th October, 2016 which also happens to be a Saturday. 

Understanding the aspects that make this a landmark deal

A change in mandate: 

For the first time in history, the mandate of an environmental treaty, that too a legally binding one, has been changed. This agreement amends the Montreal protocol (originally targeted at ozone depleting substances) to gradually phase out HFCs which are not ozone depleting but “super greenhouse gases”(some of them can warm the earth 10,000-12,000 times more than equivalent amount of carbon dioxide).

Common but differentiated responsibilities 

Countries, mostly developed, that have contributed higher quantities of HFCs to the atmosphere over larger periods of time have accepted more stringent targets. Developing nations whose economic growth, population and urbanization is still growing, have been given more time to consume HFCs until they are capable of finding and affording cheaper climate friendly alternatives. By accepting “common but differentiated responsibilities”, the world will be able to eliminate almost all of HFCs by 2050 and thus save the planet from warming by an additional 0.5 degree Celsius by 2100. 

While most climatic negotiations accept a division of targets between developed and developing nations, this agreement has taken a step further. Even the developing bloc has been divided into two (the first one has China, Brazil and South Africa and second one has India, Pakistan and some Gulf oil economies). This is on the basis of different ambient temperature conditions demanding different usage of air conditioning, current consumption of HFCs, income levels and projected growth trajectories.

Active involvement of industry: 

Unlike in the past where the industry would act like a pressure group to stall the phase out of climate unfriendly products, this time around, companies like Honeywell and Dupont have invested in research and development before hand to find out alternative refrigerants that would be energy efficient, climate friendly and non hazardous. 

Evaluating India’s hits and misses at Kigali

The most significant achievement was to put itself in a different bloc from China on the basis that it accounts for a mere 2.6% of current global HFC consumption and 1.6% of current global HFC production (as against 23% and 57% respectively for China) and is not expected to peak its usage anytime sooner than 2025. India also has been successful in mandating a technological review of options available periodically so that it isn’t left in a soup in 2028 – the year in which it has to start reducing HFCs.

One of the main issues that remains unaddressed is the cost of technological options available to India currently. In some sectors, like the mobile air conditioning units where substitutes called hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) have been tested, the patents are owned by US companies and most of them expire only in 2028. This leaves India no time to adapt to generic cheaper variations. Current costs of transition for India, as projected by a study of Council of Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) as per 2015 prices, is around 14 billion USD. 

Before finalizing on any alternative technology, the environmental impact of the entire value chain has to be examined. What kind of emissions occur in the manufacture, use and disposal of these substitutes has to be studied. Though companies in India like Godrej & Boyce have started using propane instead of HFC, issues regarding flammability, toxicity, costs of equipment design changes and skilling labor across sectors have not been resolved. 

The way ahead for India

To meet the above two issues, the scientific community, government and industry will have to come together to understand global trends and invest in indigenous research and development. We may explore the option of acquiring cheaper versions of the patented products by offering to phase down HFCs a couple of years earlier. This may not be a bad deal understanding that the sooner we phase out, the lesser number of factories will need to change to the new technology thus saving on costs of transition. The civil society has to be involved in driving lifestyle changes and helping consumers to accept climate friendly alternatives easily. Post signing the agreement, India legally mandated manufacturers to capture and incinerate HFC-23. The regulatory framework would need an overhaul to ensure strict enforcement of such orders. 

Finally, the work on the agreement is far from over. Though it has been agreed that the incremental costs of patents, servicing etc. will be covered by the Multilateral Fund (recently supplemented by contribution of 80 million USD  by philanthropists and donor countries), how the costs will be calculated is yet to be decided. India will have to take a lead in the finalization of this guidance document. As pointed out by Dr. Ajay Mathur of TERI, the phase out of CFCs under Montreal Protocol was done through a flawed process. The incremental costs paid were calculated after deducting gains from energy efficiency. As a result, this acted as a perverse incentive and manufacturers weren’t interested in exploring energy efficient alternatives. India will have to ensure that the incentive structure for finding energy, climate, industry and consumer friendly alternative refrigerants is in place. 

The dynamics of climate change are complex and the success of the Kigali agreement will be a significant yet just one of the steps forward in the larger scheme. Simultaneously India has to proactively participate in arriving at accountability mechanisms for international aviation and shipping emissions. At the domestic front, it needs to invest in renewable energy, achieve power sector reforms and energy efficiency. All this put together can help us realize the ambitious targets that we have accepted in the Paris climate treaty ratified by India earlier this month. On the climate diplomacy stage, India has established its credentials as a flexible, accommodative but strong negotiator. But it needs to keep its promises to be considered as a true “enabler” rather than “obstructionist” in conserving the health of this planet. 

The season for rhetoric is over. The season for action has arrived. 

This article was published in the Quint.


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