June 21, 2012

Global warming, developing nations, A/C and ozone

The New York Times has an excellent story about the intersection of global warming, developing nations wanting the developed-world comfort of air-conditioning, and how A/C coolants that are more ozone-friendly are less global-warming friendly, price differences, and what could be called American hypocrisy.

First thing to remember is that three of the so-called "BRIC" countries — Brazil, India and China, are all at least partially in semi-tropical regions. Of course, except for mountain areas, all of India and Brazil are semi-tropical or tropical.

As a result, the growing middle classes there clamor for comfort. Including air conditioning.

Result of that?  As the story notes, A/C sales in India and China are growing 20 percent a year. 

And that's where the story really starts, and so do the problems and conundrums:
The oldest CFC coolants, which are highly damaging to the ozone layer, have been largely eliminated from use; and the newest ones, used widely in industrialized nations, have little or no effect on it. 

But these gases have an impact the ozone treaty largely ignores. Pound for pound, they contribute to global warming thousands of times more than does carbon dioxide, the standard greenhouse gas.

The leading scientists in the field have just calculated that if all the equipment entering the world market uses the newest gases currently employed in air-conditioners, up to 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050. 
Oops. The most common one here in the U.S. is more than 2,000 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

What to do about it? Why, simple! Tell China and India not to be like us, or US, if you will:
The treaty timetable requires dozens of developing countries, including China and India, to also begin switching next year from HCFCs to gases with less impact on the ozone. But the United States and other wealthy nations are prodding them to choose ones that do not warm the planet. This week in Rio de Janeiro, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is attending the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, where proposals to gradually eliminate HFCs for their warming effect are on the provisional agenda. 

But she faces resistance because the United States is essentially telling the other nations to do what it has not: to leapfrog this generation of coolants. The trouble is, there are currently no readily available commercial ozone-friendly alternatives for air-conditioners that do not also have a strong warming effect — though there are many on the horizon. 
And, when they come out, they may be more expensive, and be patented by Western countries. Ditto for the new air conditioners, and refrigerators and such, using the next generation of coolants.

More on that here:
Phasing out HFCs by incorporating them into the treaty is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce global warming, said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development

But India, China and Brazil object that this could slow development and cost too much. All the acceptable substitutes under development for air-conditioners are either under patent, demand new equipment or require extensive new regulation and testing procedures.
At the same time, BRIC manufacturers have a "cut" in action, on the older HCFC coolants:
Politically influential manufacturers like Gujarat Fluorochemicals in India, Zhejiang Dongyang Chemical Company in China and Quimbasicos in Mexico (of which Honeywell owns 49 percent) have prospered by producing the coolant (HCFC-22, one of the older ozone-depleting coolants). They even receive lucrative subsidies from the United Nations for making it.

Othmar Schwank, a Swiss environmental consultant who has advised the United Nations, said: “In many countries, these targets will be very difficult to achieve. With appliances growing in India and China, everyone is making money, so they want to delay this as much as possible.” 
Gee, shock me. Global warming (and  ozone protection) versus money.

As noted, this is primarily a concern in air-conditioning, but refrigeration is also an issue.

And, speaking of refrigeration — it too is part of becoming more developed as a nation:
Refrigeration is also essential for these countries’ shifting food supplies. “When I was a kid in Delhi, veggies came from vendors on the street; now they all come from the supermarket,” said Atul Bagai, an Indian citizen who is the United Nations ozone program’s coordinator for South Asia. 
Beyond that, there's also the factor that all those air conditioners and refrigerators are using massive amounts of electricity. In all three warm-weather BRICs, a fair amount of the electricity for that comes from coal-fired plants.

And, then, there's the vicious circle angle, not covered in the story because it's not part of the angle.

Refrigerators spit out warm air into groceries and homes. In a hot climate, that has to be cooled by air conditioning. Of course, that air conditioning spits warm air out into the atmosphere, which then has to be cooled more. (That part of the vicious circle is here in the U.S., of course and not just the warm-weather BRICs.

Back in BRIC world, don't forget more paving of streets, more cars with air conditioning, more cars idling with air conditioning running on hot summer days, etc.

So, there's some big, big headaches ahead. And, we haven't even talked Gulf states that are getting more aggressive about both development for the general populace and diversifying their economies beyond oil.

To accompany this, the Times now has up a Room for Debate set of mini op-eds on what the global future of air conditioning should be.

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