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Montreal to Kyoto via Maldives

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Attending a conference this week in the Maldives on ‘Industry Round table on Zero and Low GWP HCFC Alternatives’ it was inevitable that even the technically-minded among us would be lost. As the conference wore on to its second day on Monday, the power points bristled with acronyms like CRS, RAC, ODS , HFC-1234yf, and sentences like ‘IPCC/TEAP thresholds on GHG at 3 GT CO2-eq/year to 9 GT by 2050’.

TIME AND TIDE: This spot on the beach in an island in the Maldvies will be under water by 2060 if nothing is done to reduce emission of greenhouse gases.

If our eyes glazed over, what was going to happen to the public? In fact, explaining the science behind ozone depletion, the links to global warming, and the dizzying array of alternative options to the public so that there is pressure on politicians to act is going to be much more challenging than coming up with green alternatives.

Relatively, climate change is much easier to explain. Fossil fuel burning gives off carbon dioxide and this heats up the atmosphere, leading to ice caps melting and polar bears getting marooned on icebergs. Ozone depletion is much more difficult, there is just too much science in the affinity of CFCs to the ozone molecule in the stratosphere, the thinning of the earth’s UV filters especially in the southern hemisphere.

That was bad enough. Now try explaining this: that the HCFCs that scientists said was an ozone-friendly alternative to CFCs actually have 2,000 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. So, we solved one problem but created another. Chilling a beer makes the earth warmer, which makes us more thirsty so we will drink more beer.

So, now we have to kill two birds with one stone. If nothing is done, experts told us in the Male meeting, HCFCs will make up one-fifth of all greenhouse gases by 2050. Even if we cut carbon emissions from energy and transportation drastically (which doesn’t look likely, anyway), the chemicals we use for refrigeration and air conditioning will keep on warming the planet.

The good news in Male is that a wide range of refrigerants are available that are both ozone and climate friendly. Europe is widely using propane as a refrigerants, the US EPA has a Green Chill project in supermarkets across all 51 states to replace chilling systems, Japanese companies are making ozone friendly air conditioners and refrigerators and the Maldives is even experimenting with refrigerated sea water from 100m below sea level to lower cooling costs of its tourist resorts. In fact, for many European manufacturers, ozone is no longer a problem and they are now concentrating on research to reduce energy costs.

The bad news is that this technology is facing an acceptance barrier. Who is going to pay for poor countries to covert to these new green technologies in refrigeration and air conditioning? The answer seems to lie in the private sector. An Ozone2Climate Technology Road Show in Maldvies this week brought manufacturers like Sanyo, Daikin, Dupont, AHT, Gree, Honeywell and others to showcase their new technologies.

It is now up to governments to agree on an HCFC phase down timetable just as they did for CFCs, which went out of use in 2010 worldwide under the Montreal Protocol and helped slow the depletion of the ozone layer. The stakes are much higher this time because the success or failure of HCFC phaseout will impact on climate change. The research into ozone-friendly refrigerants and reduction of fossil emissions are now converging on energy efficiency. It is not enough to have ozone-friendly chemicals in our fridges, the fridges also have to use less energy.

The direct way to reach the public with this message is either directly through PSAs, or ads in the papers. more indirect way is through the mass media, but there the message has to compete with stories like the ‘war on terror’, the global financial crisis and other calamities. Public awareness leading to public opinion is important, but it takes along time to achieve, and after that public opinion is supposed to put pressure on national and global policy-makers to take action. But the public doesn’t really care either way, as long as the new solutions are cheaper. Ozone and climate change are just too far away for price conscious consumers.

Public awareness is too round about, takes too long, and the environmental emergency the planet faces is too urgent. Besides, awareness doesn’t always lead to behavior change. While we wait for public opinion to be generated, it may be much more important to have more public-private brainstorming like the one in Maldives where green industry, national regulatory bodies and the United Nations can get together to chart a future path.

The Maldives decided two years ago to be carbon neutral by 2020, way ahead of the UN’s timetable for HCFC phaseout. For the Maldives, it is a question of survival, and it wants to set an example for the rest of the world. It is not going to be easy for the Maldives and other developing countries in Asia to make the switch. The Montreal Protocol is a model for international cooperation and multinational companies working together to successfully meet a great global challenge. That success needs now to be repeated but to solve another problem: global warming. If that is done we may actually see a situation where the Montreal Protocol will help in the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

ï»żï»żThe will for political will

Last year, the President of the Maldives Mohammad Nasheed, inaugurated an international conference in his country on a plan to phase out the chemicals used in air-conditioning and fridges that threaten to be a major contributor to global warming.

Nasheed had just been swept to power after an election that followed a pro-democracy movement, and used the opportunity to announce that his country would phase out HCFCs by 2020, ten years ahead of a timetable laid down by the Montreal Protocol. The president had made it his goal in office to turn his nation of 1,000 atolls, none of which are above 2 m above sea level, carbon neutral by 2020.

After delivering his address, Nasheed came out to the veranda and waited in line with the other participants for tea. For us from the South Asian mainland, this was a refreshing sight: a head of government not being obsequiously ushered to the front of the queue by flunkies, a leader without airs who wanted to be treated like everyone else.

Later, he waved away his limousine and walked us to his modest official residence through the back streets of Male to speak passionately about climate change in the aftermath of the deadlock in the Copenhagen process. He seemed to know more about the subject than most experts, and was clear about what he was going to do about it.

“What the Maldvies does or doesn’t do will not save the planet,” Nasheed told us in the interview, “but for a country that is going to disappear because of global warming it is important to magnify our voice in the international arena and that will only happen if we earn the moral authority to do so by setting an example ourselves.”

Wow. When are we ever going to have a leader in our country who speaks like that? That is the difference between being a political boss and a statesman. Politicians follow the electorate, they gauge public opinion and if it is pro-green they go green too. Statesmen are convinced about the path that needs to be taken, and even though it may not be popular, go for it. Most leaders in South Asia don’t lead, they follow. And for many, global environmental threats are too far away and their time horizons too far to bother.

One year later this week, at another international conference in the Maldives about finding alternatives to harmful refrigerants, it was easy to underestimate the role political will plays in moving these complicated negotiations forward. Industry has its own agenda, green activists push their own alternatives, the rich and poor countries bicker over who is going to foot the bill for conversion, but in the end what breaks deadlocks is someone bold enough to take the political risk.

It is a symbolic move, but the President Nasheed has pushed a new energy-efficient convention centre in Gan in southern Maldives which will be cooled by a Mycom air-conditioning system that doesn’t use chemicals that have global warming potential. The first-ever SAARC Summit held south of the equator will be meeting here in November, and let’s hope other South Asian leaders look around for intelligent energy-efficient building design tips.

This week in Male, to see the glaring difference between a country with political will and one without, you only had to compare the Maldives with Nepal. The empty chairs of the delegation from Nepal at the Male conference said it all. While the Maldives has shown proactive leadership in setting phase-out targets and has realistic plans to achieve them, my own country is so mired in politics that we didn’t even bother to be represented at a conference on climate change.

Nothing is more embarrassing when your country is singled out for being out of step with the international community. Nepal has earned near-pariah status because its uncertain politics has delayed not just its peace process but also the ratification by parliament of four international treaties, including the Copenhagen Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

Delay in signing this amendment into law has delayed $1.5 million already in the pipeline to help Nepal’s conversion from HCFCs to less harmful chemicals.

UNEP was so worried about this non-compliance it sent a high-level delegation last month to Nepal led by Marco Gonzales of UNEP’s Ozone Secretariat to have a word with the speaker of parliament in Kathmandu. But Nepal’s politicians are so busy with the May 28 expiry of the mandate of parliament that no one had much time for ozone.

Hopefully, Nepal will sort out its short-term political issues so that we can turn our attention to long-term global environmental crises that ultimately lead to the meltdown of our Himalayan mountains and trigger climate variability that affects our agriculture.

Only political will can lead to breakthroughs so countries can look beyond their own borders to the trans-boundary causes of global environmental issues.

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