New Study Shows Pathway to Phasing Down HFCs in India

A new paper in Environmental Research Letters by NRDC experts and our colleagues lays out a pathway for India to phase down super climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, without infringing on the nation’s effort to scale up access to cooling for millions.

HFCs are used primarily as refrigerant gases in cooling appliances to help give them their cooling effect, as well as in the production of insulating foams and more. But HFCs have climate warming power – often called global warming potential, or GWP – thousands of times that of CO2 on a pound-for-pound basis, and the world has just begun a transition away from HFCs to using climate-friendlier alternatives under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The effort is expected to stave off at least a quarter a degree Celsius of warming by the end of this century.

India will face unique challenges in this transition. It’s a hot country with very low adoption of refrigerant-based air conditioning today – just 8 percent of homes have it, and the country as a whole tops the global list of nations lacking the cooling they need. 

The Kigali Amendment works by capping HFCs at a close-to-current level of use (for things like building new air conditioners and refrigeration systems and filling up leaks in existing ones) and progressively phasing down from there. For countries with a century of adopting air conditioning behind them, this makes for a plentiful ‘ HFC baseline’ from which to start. For India and other countries with cooling markets still early in their development, the task is harder. The Indian market for HFC-using products is small relative to its potential and its need to grow is large.

Here enters the good news: the ERL study finds a clear path to phasing down HFCs in India while phasing up cooling, and identifies few high priorities to help ensure a smooth, successful transition. 

The first is to start early – within the next few years, despite that Kigali’s requirements for India begin only in 2028 – and maintain a steady pace of converting manufacturing industries to using climate-friendly alternatives. This approach leaves plenty of time to transition sectors at a reasonable speed, similar to the pace followed in prior fluorocarbon transitions, and leaves time for industries to recoup their investments along the way. It avoids the pitfalls of waiting to get started until it’s necessary – 2028 and later – an option that we found will leave India needing to transition manufacturers away from HFC-based technologies faster than has been done before to keep pace.

There is already very positive indication that industry prefers to move ahead of government mandates. India’s biggest HFC-using sector, air conditioning, has recently achieved a major milestone: over the last few years, more than 90 percent of new room-style air conditioners now contain climate-friendlier alternative R-32, with roughly one-quarter the climate potency of the globally ubiquitous, high-GWP HFC called R-410A. It’s exactly this the kind of early action that will make implementing Kigali far easier, one reason that NRDC and others in Indian civil society have been encouraging this particular step for many years. India is also home to the largest market for low-GWP, R-290-based air conditioners, although they are sold in comparatively smaller volumes.

The second finding is a strong incentive to move as quickly as possible to low-GWP alternatives in the largest sectors of the cooling economy, such as room air conditioning. In order to grow these major cooling sectors by many-fold over the coming years, a transition to low-GWP alternatives such as R-290 and others is likely to be needed, as they offer the opportunity to grow refrigerant use without limit under the Kigali Amendment. 

Phasing down HFCs in India will yield dramatic climate benefits. Our study shows it will avoid use and likely emissions of HFCs equivalent to 2.2 billion metric tons of CO2 through 2050 compared to current market trends, equivalent to a full year of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Should India advance its timeline to that of most other developing countries – and it indeed has a long history of outpacing requirements of the Montreal Protocol as it addressed ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) – we show an additional 337 million metric tons COof potential climate benefit to be reaped.

India’s cooling economy is on the cusp of a transformation. Recent process in the air conditioning sector has already placed it among the leading countries in the world adopting climate-friendlier alternatives to HFCs. With a few smart, early moves, India’s industries can get set for long-term, sustainable success.

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