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Back to the Basics

Rajendra Shende examines the key challenges that countries across the globe are facing in balancing sustainability and economic development

| | Mar 13, 2012 | 12:10 am
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In this review of the role that international summits have played in the phasing out of ozone-depleting refrigerants, Rajendra Shende, Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, and Former Director, UNEP, examines the key challenges that countries across the globe are facing in balancing sustainability and economic development, explaining why it’s time to “go back to the basics”.

In this review of the role that international summits have played in the phasing out of ozone-depleting refrigerants, Rajendra Shende, Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, and Former Director, UNEP, examines the key challenges that countries across the globe are facing in balancing sustainability and economic development, explaining why it’s time to “go back to the basics”.

The more I reflect on the 25 impressive years since the signing of the Montreal Protocol, the more I realise what far-reaching lessons it holds for the global community today and how it is still important to make the right choice on the refrigerants for keeping us on track of the sustainable development. It may sound very elementary for many to think of the debates and criteria for the selection of the refrigerants. But it pays to go back to the basics, particularly when we are faced with defining moments for the technology choices.

We are approaching the 20th Anniversary of the Rio summit, i.e. UN Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as the Rio Earth Summit. The conference produced important global agreements, including ‘Agenda 21’, a plan of action adopted by over 178 governments to address human impacts on the environment at local, national and global levels, as well as key treaties on climate change, desertification and biodiversity.

In June 2012 the world will look back at the action plan, commitments and targets in the event called Rio+20 in Brazil. It is being held when we are facing a “7 billion challenge” impregnated with financial, energy and food crises. Top it up with the environmental crises underlining the rapid buildup of greenhouse gases to the erosion of biodiversity and the 40% increase in the use of natural resources, and what we have is the recipe of exercise that needs “going back to basics”. The simple decisions are going to impact in much larger proportion due to interconnected technologies.

Improving the energy efficiency of the refrigeration and air conditioning appliances is directly linked to the selection of the refrigerants. The refrigeration and air conditioning sectors consume 15% of the world’s electricity and significant part of the fossil fuel in the transportation sector that secures food chain and human comforts. The direct and indirect links between the choice of refrigerants and food and energy security is evident. The Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer has provided the opportunity to make early decisions on such choices. It brought the global community together to find a way to move forward in the compelling time-targeted approach. All countries agreed that the release of chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFC), which were used in aerosols and refrigerators, and the release of HCFCs that are still used in air conditioners, were intimately linked to the existence of life on earth. The industrialised world later provided the incremental financial and technical assistance to developing countries to implement the agreement.

As Mario Molina, who in 1995 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in elucidating the CFC threat to the earth’s ozone layer, said: “The Montreal Protocol is widely considered the most successful environmental treaty, phasing out almost 100 ozone-depleting chemicals by 97% and placing the ozone layer on the path to recovery by mid-century.” What remains now is the phasing out of HCFCs, by which the world has an opportunity to address and contribute to energy and food security more than ozone security.

In phasing out the vast majority of ozone-depleting substances, the Montreal Protocol created a whole range of new job opportunities in industrialised and developing countries. Recycling, retrofitting, containment and best practices, in addition to the implementation of energy standards and labelling, are just some of the new activities that were undertaken by industry and governments. These also opened up new vistas for employment.

Enterprises in developing countries also benefited from a wave of technological innovation for upgrading their production lines and deploying the latest energy- and resource-efficient technologies.

In 2007, all the signatories agreed to accelerate the phasing out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), the last remaining ozone-depleting substance which is still widely used in room air conditioners.

Yet, while the Montreal Protocol has achieved much of what it set out to do, it still has some weighty challenges ahead. The 2005 IPCC/TEAP Special Report on Ozone and Climate, of which I was a coordinating lead author, exposed some alarming trends.

A threat from “banks” of ozone-depleting substances: Though the production of CFCs has been phased out, CFC produced in the past (before 2010) exists in various equipment that is still running, like old refrigerators. Such CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances that still exist in equipment all over the world are called “banks”. About 21 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents contained in old equipment will inevitably seep into the atmosphere in the absence of any significant efforts to chemically destroy them by incineration.

Market imperatives: The centre of gravity for global air-conditioning with HCFCs is moving to China. The country faces multiple challenges. It has to supply the high global warming potential (GWP) — a measure of how much a given mass of greenhouse gas contributes to global warming – alternative air-conditioning systems to the developed countries where such systems are allowed, such as the United States, and low GWP alternatives in places where there are regulations that ban the high GWP systems, such as the European Union.

The world is also looking at China and India to develop low-GWP and energy-efficient air conditioning systems that would be economically and environmentally beneficial. High ambient temperature in the developing countries would be the key barrier for energy-efficient technologies.

High growth of HFCs: There is also the projected growth of HFCs, which were introduced to replace HCFCs. This increase in business-as-usual scenarios is alarming. Even developed countries continue with their use of HFCs as the refrigerants of choice. HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases and their emissions have to be controlled under the Kyoto Protocol. Forecasts indicate that the share of HFCs in the global fluorocarbon market will jump from 35% in 2008 to 58% in 2018.

The world stands to lose the opportunity to contribute to sustainability and climate mitigation if we do not go back to the basics of the “Refrigerants Review”.


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