Adapting to climate change is not always straightforward

There are stark differences between OECD countries and non-OECD countries in the appliances that are used. One appliance, air conditioners, can cause a problem, not only for the electricity consumption but also for the materials used in them. Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman professor of economics at the University of Chicago, writes an excellent article in the New York Times about some of the key issues. One issue not touched concerns the actual buildings. One would imagine that the greater use of passive designs would help reduce the need for mechanical air conditioning. What are your views?

 

India’s Air-Conditioning and Climate Change Quandary

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: 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, freezing HFC use by 2024 and reducing it to 20 percent of 2021 levels by 2045.

And a small group of the hottest countries, like India, have agreed to an even slower path of reductions, freezing HFC use by 2028 and reducing it to about 15 percent of 2025 levels by 2047. 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 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 answer for how to balance these costs. Countries’ choices will reflect their current and future wealth; current and future climate; and 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 is projected to have the highest rate of greenhouse gas emissions growth over the remainder of the century. India’s decision to support the amendment, but at the slowest track, suggests that it will remain focused on improving and saving lives.

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 a difficult position: 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. It must balance protecting people today from its 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.

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