Behind U.S. heat on fridge gas pact, thirst for markets

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TODDSTERNNEW DELHI, September 12; The U.S. is pushing India hard to sign on to a pact that would eventually lead to New Delhi replacing climate-damaging refrigerant gases with alternative, but expensive, technologies proprietary to a few U.S.-based companies.

Signing the pact — the multilateral Montreal Protocol — would open a huge market for these U.S. firms that hold patent rights on the replacement gases and their attendant technologies.

In a meeting with Indian officials, the US Special Envoy on Climate Change, Todd Stern demanded that Indian officials agree to the beginning of discussions on the phase out of these refrigerant gases under the Montreal Protocol before PM Manmohan Singh visits the US. He warned that if the decision was not taken at the official level, President Barack Obama would raise it directly with the Indian PM.

Mr. Stern in his meeting told Indian officials that it is a political priority not just for the US administration but also personally for the President Obama.

The Ministry of External Affairs and the Environment Ministry — both nodal points for environment-related international agreements — have opposed the move strongly, raising a red flag on several counts. They have said that the Union Cabinet had earlier decided against such a move. It’s noted that the new technology and gases being pushed as the alternative are patented by select industrialised country companies, are 20 times more costly at times and untested for safety in some cases.

The Ministries have warned of the potential impact on India’s defence equipment — submarines and aircrafts, which use the refrigerant gases. Besides, such a decision promises to weaken the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and dilute existing responsibilities of the developed world to fund reduction of global emissions, it has been pointed out internally.

But India has been caught in a bind with the Prime Minister signing on to the recent G20 communiqué that encouraged such technology transition in breach of the Union Cabinet decision, which was taken in 2012. The PMO approved the communiqué signed at St. Petersburg without the knowledge of the nodal environment ministry.

The Indian government’s position against bringing this transition under the technology replacement regime of the Montreal Protocol has been reiterated innumerable times in domestic, bilateral and multilateral forums for years now besides being laid down in 2012 as part of India’s climate negotiation redline as a Cabinet decision.

But Dr. Singh’s approval of the St. Petersburg communiqué has left the Indian flank open with the U.S. special envoy, Mr. Stern, pointing to the communiqué specifically while leaning on Indian officials to approve the decision.

The Indian government has so far contended that such a move would bring a dual advantage to the U.S. It would secure a monopoly market for American businesses in the high-growth refrigerant business. It would also allow the U.S. to claim the role of a global climate leader even as it pushes the onus of action on to emerging economies, consequently buying time for itself to take harsh and costly carbon dioxide emission reduction decisions.

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