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Cooling India Without Making a Hot Mess

As the country's economy improves—and temperatures rise—tens of millions of people are installing air conditioners. That spells trouble for climate change.

Air conditioners in New Delhi, India Nancy Nehring/iStock

Until recently, air conditioners were considered a luxury in India. According to a 2013 American Scientist article by Michael Sivak, an energy expert at the University of Michigan, only 2 percent of households in 2007 had AC. But today India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Between rising incomes, lower prices, and more extreme weather events—including heat waves like the one that took 2,300 lives in 2015—the country's air-conditioner market is set to explode.

Lessons can be learned from China, where sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled in the past five years. A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory projected that the number of room air conditioners in India could jump from around 4 million in 2010 to 116 million by 2030. That's a mind-blowing increase of 2,800 percent.

It's easy to get lost in a land of mechanical specifics and chemical jargon when exploring this issue, but the bottom line is this: The new air-conditioner habit in India—and in other developing countries—could have serious ramifications for climate change.

Most current AC models are terrible for the environment.

Air conditioners contribute directly to global warming. The root of the problem is chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, the chemicals often used in refrigerators and air conditioners that scientists came to realize were destroying the ozone layer. In 1987, the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol called for a phaseout of these chemicals, and beginning in developed countries, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, began to replace CFCs.

HFCs don't damage the ozone layer like their CFC counterparts, but they are still bad news. Often called a “super greenhouse gas," HFCs are among six classes of gas the Kyoto Protocol deemed dangerous enough to be controlled because of their massive impact on global warming.

Today, HFCs account for less than 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that the number will grow as more developing countries start making and selling air conditioners that use these chemicals.

"We're being ambitious with controlling global CO2 emissions on the one hand, but it would be reckless not to couple this with strong global action on HFCs," says NRDC's India representative Bhaskar Deol. The science and research show that if we do not address HFCs now, they could raise the global temperature a half-degree centigrade by 2100—all by themselves.

Climate-friendly alternatives to HFCs do exist.

The good news: HFCs are more short-lived than carbon, so controlling these emissions yields benefits more quickly. NRDC and other environmental groups have been pushing for countries to leapfrog the HFC phase and immediately transition to more climate-friendly refrigerants. The European Union, Japan, United States, China, and a number of other countries are taking steps to do this.

Two viable alternatives already on the Indian market include the refrigerants R-290 and R-32. These are not only less dangerous to the environment but also more effective for India's high temperatures. There are concerns about flammability, however, so fine-tuning fire safety and technical standards will be key to encouraging their widespread use.

National Capital Territory of Delhi, India David Freund/Getty Images

Energy efficiency is also crucial.

This surge in air-conditioner use will undoubtedly strain a country that's already struggling to supply power to its booming towns and cities. Increasing the efficiency of AC units could save 40 percent of the energy they consume, according to the aforementioned Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study. The authors state that when you zoom out to consider the national impact in India, those savings could prevent the construction of 120 new coal-fired power plants.

Improving AC efficiency would also help reduce summer blackouts, because cooling is responsible for the peak demand that sometimes overwhelms the grid.

There is hope.

The Indian government took a huge step in April 2015 when it reversed its previous position and proposed its own amendment to the Montreal Protocol to include phasing down HFCs. An analysis by the Council for Energy, Environment, and Water found that if this step-down were followed globally, we would help stave off the majority—64 percent, to be exact—of HFCs the world's nations would otherwise release between 2010 and 2050. Indian companies like Godrej, Boyce, and Daikin are already selling hundreds of thousands of HFC-free units. That's a pretty good start.

"We're delighted," says Deol. "Momentum on this issue is slow, but it is reaching a critical stage."

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