[Looking to the future of global climate policy, it is critical to keep an eye on India, which is the world’s third-largest emitter of all greenhouse gases, after China and the United States, and projected to have the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions growth over the remainder of the century. Its decision to support the amendment, but at the slowest track, may reveal how India is likely to manage the climate trade-off.]
By Michael Greenstone
An Indian migrant daily wage worker sleeping next to an air cooler under a mosquito
net on a steel box in New Delhi in May. Hot temperatures were making life tough for
millions of poor people across north India. Credit Altaf Qadri/Associated Press
Air-conditioning is not just a luxury. It’s a critical adaptation tool in a warming world, with the ability to save lives.
It also warms the world.
Which is why the structure of the recent landmark agreement reached in Kigali, Rwanda, on limiting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in, among other things, air-conditioners and refrigerators is so important. The agreement accounts for the trade-offs that the world, especially today’s poorest countries, must make in confronting climate change while improving people’s lives.
Consider this simple fact: While 87 percent of households in the United States have air-conditioning, only 5 percent of those in India do. Any agreement to limit HFCs across the board would greatly reduce opportunities for people in poorer countries to have access to air-conditioners.
To deal with these disparities, the Kigali agreement created three tracks of countries. The richest countries, like the United States, are on the swiftest track, freezing the production and consumption of HFCs by 2018 and bringing HFC levels to 15 percent of 2012 levels by 2036. Much of the rest of the world is taking a middle road. And a small group of the hottest countries, like India, have agreed to an even slower path of reductions. Rich countries, as well as a group of philanthropists, will also provide $80 million to middle-track countries as incentives to attempt tougher goals.
The track system illustrates that, at its core, cutting greenhouse gas pollution requires countries to assume upfront costs today in exchange for smaller climate damage in the future.
But there is no universal right answer for how to balance these costs. Countries’ choices will reflect their current and future wealth; current and future climate; and a variety of other factors, including societal values. The track system allows for those differences and may well be a model for future climate deals.
Looking to the future of global climate policy, it is critical to keep an eye on India, which is the world’s third-largest emitter of all greenhouse gases, after China and the United States, and projected to have the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions growth over the remainder of the century. Its decision to support the amendment, but at the slowest track, may reveal how India is likely to manage the climate trade-off.
It is apparent that India will remain focused on improving lives — even saving them — and air-conditioning is an important part of that.
In our continuing research, my colleagues and I have found that hot days in India have a strikingly big impact on mortality. Specifically, the mortality effects of each additional day in which the average temperature exceeds 95 degrees Fahrenheit are 25 times greater in India than in the United States. Currently, India has roughly five of these days per year. Without global climate policy, it is projected to have 75 such days annually by the end of the century. It is apparent that high temperatures are a risk to India today, and at the same time it is vulnerable to climate change, underscoring the challenge the country faces.
The effect of very hot days on mortality in the United States is so low in part because of the widespread use of air-conditioning. A recent study I did with colleagues showed that deaths as a result of these very hot days in the United States declined by more than 80 percent from 1960 to 2004 — and it was the adoption of air-conditioning that accounted for nearly the entire decline.
So we are in the difficult position in which the very technology that can help to protect people from climate change also accelerates the rate of climate change.
India, like the rest of the world, cannot choose to improve lives now with no thought of the future. This means they must balance protecting people today from their already hot climate with ensuring that its people do not face an unmanageable climate in the future.
In time, India will be richer, and perhaps technology will provide more inexpensive solutions, such as cheaper air-conditioners that use alternatives to HFCs. But the agreement reveals that for now India is heavily focused on current residents who face risks that simply don’t exist in wealthy countries like the United States.
This trade-off between the present and the future shapes every country’s decisions about climate policy. It is unrealistic to think that what is right for some countries is right for all. But the choices being made now will determine the climate we give our children and grandchildren.
Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman professor of economics at the University of Chicago, runs the Energy Policy Institute there.