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HFC phase-down: India can solve its cooling problem through collaborative R&D

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Cooling holds transformative potential for India. It offers us an opportunity to make our labour more productive and our farm supply chains more efficient.

HFC phase-down: India can solve its cooling problem through collaborative R&D
India recently ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol for the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs have high global warming potential (GWP) and are primarily used as refrigerants in cooling applications. India’s decision could prevent emissions of about 105 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (mtCO2 eq) and shave as much as 0.5°C off the rise in global average surface temperatures. Also, a transition away from HFCs is expected to offer opportunities for domestic innovation, production and manufacturing of alternative chemicals and technologies. What does all this mean for cooling and thermal comfort in India?
Access to cooling in India continues to be abysmally low. The India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) estimates that only 8 per cent of Indian households have air conditioning. We also have one of the world’s lowest energy consumption levels for space cooling: just 69 KwH per capita. Further, the infrastructure gap in key components of India’s cold chain (such as pack-houses, reefer transport and cold chambers) is as high as 90 percent, according to the National Centre for Cold chain Development (NCCD). This causes 16 percent of India’s fruits and vegetables to go to waste each year, causing significant losses to producers—not to mention a multiplier effect in the form of wasted critical inputs like water and fertilisers. Be it global warming mitigation, protection from extreme heat events, or economic efficiency, every metric point to India’s need to enhance cooling and thermal comfort.
By deciding to phase down HFCs, we have given ourselves a chance to obliterate the climate impact of current and future cooling applications. To make the most of India’s massive cooling opportunity, we must invest in large-scale collaborative research, development and deployment (RD&D) of next-generation technologies. Doing so is essential for India to develop a multi-pronged strategy to meet its Kigali objectives and further decrease its energy and climate footprint. But how do we foster an atmosphere of innovation for driving advances in sustainable cooling?
First, scale up bilateral and multilateral technology cooperation to facilitate accessibility and capacity building in low-access and resource-poor regions. This will steer the focus to applied R&D: adapting technologies for specific purposes rather than developing them from scratch.
Second, make changes in the institutional framework for R&D in India to improve industry participation in public research programmes. It is important to incentivise both university researchers and their industry counterparts for effective collaboration. One way to do this on the academic front is by structuring incentives into tenures and appraisals for research professors.
Third, linking technological developments with disruptive business models could attract climate financiers and venture capital, fuelling further innovation. Hence, it is crucial to promote emerging business models such as Cooling as a Service (CAAS) and technologies like District Cooling, which create efficiency of use and lower barriers to access. We should begin by commissioning pilot projects to gauge their viability in different sectors.
Fourth, focus on developing and deploying low-cost technological solutions for communities facing extreme heat such as cool roofs and cooling hubs. In this regard, the role of end-consumers themselves is important for the successful adoption of cooling technologies. This calls for building trust and confidence between private players, government agencies, university researchers, and civil society organisations (CSOs), and ensuring that they work in concert with each other.
Fifth, provide R&D support to small and medium enterprises to enable their participation in local as well as international value chains. A Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme approved in April 2021 seeks to address the issue of value chain localisation by supporting component manufacturing in the white goods sector (LEDs/consumer electronics like ACs and refrigerators). By combining manufacturing incentives and technology diffusion in the local value chains, the equipment manufacturers can achieve operational and technical flexibility and make it easier for Indian firms to further absorb new technologies.
Cooling holds transformative potential for India. It offers us an opportunity to make our labour more productive and our farm supply chains more efficient. It will also help us create jobs and growth through manufacturing. Our chance to act is now.
—Himanshu Dixit is a Research Analyst at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), an independent not-for-profit policy research institution. Views expressed are personal
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