By ELLEN BARRY and CORAL DAVENPORTOCT. 12, 2016
DELHI — A thrill goes down Lane 12, C Block, Kamalpur every time another working-class family brings home its first air-conditioner. Switched on for a few hours, usually to cool a room where the whole family sleeps, it transforms life in this suffocating concrete labyrinth where the heat reached 117 degrees in May.
“You wake up totally fresh,” exulted Kaushilya Devi, a housewife, whose husband bought a unit in May. “I wouldn’t say we are middle class,” she said. “But we are closer.”
But 3,700 miles away, in Kigali, Rwanda, negotiators from more than 170 countries gathered this week to complete an accord that would phase out the use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, worldwide, and with them the cheapest air-conditioners that are just coming within reach of people like Ms. Devi. Millions of Indians might mark the transition from poverty with the purchase of their first air-conditioner, but as those purchases ease suffering in one of the planet’s hottest countries, they are contributing profoundly to the heating of the planet.
HFCs function as a sort of supergreenhouse gas, with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide. While they account for just a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, scientists say a surge in the use of HFC-fueled air-conditioners would alone contribute to nearly a full degree Fahrenheit of atmospheric warming over the coming century — in an environment where just three degrees of warming could be enough to tip the planet into an irreversible future of rising sea levels, more powerful storms and deluges, extreme drought, food shortages and other devastating impacts.
Between 6 and 9 percent of Indian households use air-conditioning, and the purchase of a first unit — not a second or a third — is driving growth, said Ajay Mathur, the director general of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. Every time government salaries are raised, he said, air-conditioner purchases surge, as civil servants gain confidence that they will be able to pay higher electric bills.
“It is me of 10 years ago. It is many of my younger colleagues,” Mr. Mathur said. “It is my driver, who after 20 years working for me, bought his first air-conditioner. It is a marker of social mobility.”
A fast phaseout comes with big wins for the United States, since many of the replacement chemicals are manufactured by American chemical companies like Dow and Honeywell. But those manufacturers concede that they are more expensive than HFCs.
“The replacements are more flammable and toxic,” said Stephen Yurek, the president of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, an advocacy organization. “So there is a need to make sure the equipment is better designed and maintained, a need to make sure that when it is installed, it is done correctly and safely. You need better-trained people to do all that, and that will be more expensive.”
The cost to India of phasing out HFCs by 2050 could range, depending on the mitigation plan, from around $13 billion to $38 billion, according to a study by the India-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water.
After a doctor warned Mrs. Chauhan that heat exhaustion was affecting their oldest son’s health, her husband bought an air-conditioner on credit. Though they are hardly middle class — “we have never let this thought cross our minds,” Mrs. Chauhan said — the purchase has changed the way they see themselves.
“My children sleep in peace,” she said. “There was a sense of happiness from inside. There was a sense that father has done a great job.”
Among the changes that have come with increasing wealth, Ms. Devi said, is the confidence to spend on the family’s comfort, rather than squirreling every bit of savings away.
“Education is teaching people to take care of themselves,” she said. “Now that we are used to air-conditioners, we will never go back.”