India recently effected a complete change in its policy on climate change. It has accepted the request of the United States and some other developed countries to work towards phasing out refrigeration chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, under the Montreal protocol on ozone layer protection. HFCs, however, don't affect the ozone layer: they impact global warming. HFC-user industries - refrigeration, air-conditioning and some medical equipment - will be impacted: they will need to look towards relatively more expensive alternative technologies sooner than anticipated. India had so far been insisting that the HFCs' phase-out should be taken up under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which exempts the developing countries from targeted and time-bound action. But, in a complete reversal of its stand, New Delhi has now proposed an amendment to the Montreal protocol to also include the HFC phase-out under its purview. The refrigeration sector, growing at an annual rate of over 10 per cent, is estimated to take a hit of a massive Rs 90,000 crore if the production and consumption of HFCs are stopped under the Montreal protocol, which applies uniformly to all nations without any relaxations for the developing countries.
India's policy change on the HFC issue is a product of a sustained reach-out from the United States in particular. The US policy has focused on ensuring that developing countries participate in binding global warming mitigation action. For this, the United States first prevailed upon China to agree to bring HFCs under the Montreal protocol, and has now done the same to India. It is believed that the United States had made it clear to India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to that country that the fate of all energy-related agreements hinged on this. India, in its proposed amendment, has appended a couple of hopeful riders that may help to soften the economic impact of phasing out HFCs. These include full compensation for India and other developing countries for the cost of technology transition and a longer time frame for this transition. If agreed to, these terms would imply easier access for the developing countries to the next generation refrigerants, most of which are costlier and patent-protected, and a longish period, which may extend up to 2050, to switch over to them. The rich countries may need to do so by 2035.
The Montreal protocol came into force in 1989 to safeguard the earth's protective ozone layer that blocks penetration of the sun's ultraviolet radiation - an excess of which can cause many skin diseases, including cancer. It is the most successful international environmental accord: the ozone hole may return to its 1980 level anytime between 2050 and 2070. It may, therefore, be in the interest of all countries, as well as of this commendable accord, to agree to the conditions put forth by India, which will ensure that developing countries take on the added obligations being imposed on them. Otherwise, the blemish-free compliance record of the Montreal protocol will needlessly be sullied.