International negotiators are meeting this week in Kigali, Rwanda to finalize a ban on heat-trapping hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), the “super greenhouse gases” commonly used in air conditioners and refrigerators. The Obama administration is already touting the coming ban as a major blow against climate change, but for many households in India, there is little to celebrate. The New York Times reports:
The emerging HFC ban, nearly seven years in the making, has not drawn the same kind of attention as last year’s Paris agreement on climate change. And the Kigali talks are focused on a narrow slice of the economy — just the HFCs in air-conditioners and refrigerators.
But the deal, which could be completed this weekend, could have as much or more of an effect on climate change. Unlike the Paris accord, the emerging Kigali agreement will have the force of international law, a legal requirement that rich countries give poor countries money to help them comply, and trade and economic sanctions against countries that do not. […]
But there is no guarantee that Mr. Modi will give Mr. Obama the deal he wants. The president’s rapid timeline pits the planet’s richer, cooler countries against poorer, hotter ones. And among the latter, none has more at stake than India, whose strong economic growth means tens of millions of families will soon be able to afford air-conditioning.
The HFC ban illustrates the inconvenient truth about the prevailing regulatory approach to fighting climate change: such top-down regulation will almost always come at the cost of economic growth, especially in developing countries. President Obama may pat himself on the back if his team negotiates a rapid timeline, but it is ordinary citizens in India who will bear the brunt of the policy.
As the energy expert Ajay Mathur explains in the Times, air conditioning in India is not merely a matter of comfort but a “marker of social mobility.” Whenever salaries in India rise, purchases of air conditioners surge, driving economic growth and bringing a middle-class lifestyle to more Indians. If India agrees to an aggressive phase-out timeline, that growth will come screeching to a halt, and could cost the country between $13 and $38 billion. Although alternatives to HFCs exist, their price point would place air conditioners far out of reach for most Indians—just as the old models are becoming affordable.
If the Obama administration negotiates its preferred version of the HFC ban, it will be more legally binding than the toothless Paris agreement. It may even have a marginal effect on reducing atmospheric warming. But the U.S. should not pretend that it is doing any favors to citizens of poorer countries, who will endure hotter temperatures and emptier pockets in the meantime.