After Ozone layer, cooling industry now burns the whole planet

It first drilled a hole in the ozone layer and is now damaging the entire environment with large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Monday 16 September 2019
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and electricity used to run cooling devices are major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters. Illustration: Tarique Aziz__

The ozone problem is joined at the hip of the world’s growing obsession for cooling. The cooling industry — refrigeration, air-conditioning and insulation — first burned the hole in the ozone layer and is now heating up the planet.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and electricity used to run cooling devices are major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters. To address this, the Montreal Protocol, the only universally adopted treaty, expanded its scope and ambition in 2016 by introducing the Kigali Amendment.

It stemmed out of the guilt that its success in removing ozone-depleting chemicals from our cooling devices has filled the atmosphere with highly potent GHGs. So the Kigali Amendment will not just be a fight to protect the ozone layer, but will also be leveraged to fight climate change. But bridging the gap between ozone and climate challenges is not going to be easy.

The Kigali Amendment is fiendishly complicated — given its technical and political nuances — but it broadly caps and reduces the use of HFCs in a gradual process.

The agreement recognises the linkages between the transition in refrigerants and energy efficiency of air-conditioners (ACs).

It aims to improve energy efficiency because the world will need more mechanical cooling as the climate gets hotter, electricity generation to keep the ACs running is a critical climate concern. Cooling accounts for 10 per cent of all global electricity consumption as per the International Energy Agency.

THE KIGALI AMENDMENT came into force in January 2019 — 81 nations having ratified it till date. India, China and the US are not on that list as yet. Nevertheless, some policy manoeuvring has been initiated in both India and China to improve the energy efficiency of cooling and moving it away from high GHG-based refrigerant in the spirit of the amendment.

India has estimated that its cooling demand will grow by eight times in the next 20 years. Given this context, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change launched the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) — a 20-year-roadmap to address cooling requirements in building, cold chain, transport and refrigeration sectors — in March 2019.

The plan aims to reduce cooling demand by up to 25 per cent, refrigerant demand by 25-30 per cent and cooling energy requirements by up to 40 per cent by 2038.

ICAP is not a regular plan to cut emissions and energy consumption. It also aims to improve access to cooling for the Indian population—majority of whom are vulnerable to environmental heat exposure—through energy efficiency and less use of HFCs. ICAP does a fine job to link national development goals with the ozone and climate agenda.

For instance, it aims to double farmers’ income by expanding and improving the cold chain network that will reduce food wastage. But the most unique and pioneering attempt of ICAP is to seek the development of adaptive thermal comfort standards for buildings to reduce and rationalise cooling demand of buildings and not just make them energy efficient. But sadly, it leaves this abstruse task for standard making agencies.

It also only reinforces, and that too meekly, energy efficiency and climate targets already set by different sectors and ministries. And it shies away from setting any targets or benchmarks.

For instance, it recommends ratcheting up the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) for room ACs “while taking into account most energy efficient models available and their affordability”. This is a weak approach that fundamentally resigns to the industry’s inertia, instead of pushing it towards rapid adoption of better technology.

CHINA TOO ADOPTED the “Green and High-Efficiency Cooling Action Plan” in June, 2019, but it has taken a more decisive and measurable route. It has asked manufacturers to improve the MEPS of room ACs by 30 per cent and increase the market share of high-efficiency cooling products by 20 per cent by 2022. It has also set a target to improve MEPS by a further 15 per cent and increasing market share to 40 per cent by 2030.

This is a far more aggressive and ambitious target setting, compared to India. Of course, China is a different governmental setup and economy than India, and it is able to take action in a way that might not be feasible in a democratic setup.

China’s plan has global implications not just from the perspective being the biggest consumer of cooling energy and refrigerants in the world, but also because it manufactures more than 80 per cent of world’s total room ACs. The Chinese plan advocates “green cooling for all” and encourages “bring in and export out” high-efficiency products.

However, it is unclear if the domestic MEPS will be applied to the ACs being manufactured for export. Even today, the MEPS for ACs sold in China is far more stringent than what the country is exporting to India and the rest of the developing world.

It may be just a wishful thinking, but if China does enforce its domestic MEPS on all ACs manufactured there, which is highly unlikely, then most of world’s cooling equipment efficiency will drastically improve, including those exported to India. So China’s action plan will push India to realise its own.

(This article will be published in Down To Earth's print edition dated September 16-30, 2019)

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.