"Heat’s on for Perfectly Cool"

 by Lauren W. Deutsch (lwdeutsch@earthlink.net)

It’s a typical summer day in Beijing: the air is sweltering and humid. But there’s good news for the average citizen: domestically produced room air conditioners, once luxury goods, have become more affordable – throughout Asia, in fact -- and are selling like sweet beans and canned fruit cocktail over shaved ice from a street-side vendor.

While the opportunity to become “perfectly cool” feels like good news, the not-so-good news is that these affordable, status-building appliances utilize as a refrigerant a known ozone depleting substance (ODS) HCFC-22 (hydrochloroflurocarbons).

Many HCFCs have high global warming potential: up to 2000 times that of CO2 and thus contribute significantly to climate change. Some 60 percent of world-wide production and utilization of HCFCs are currently centered in Asia. Under the Montreal Protocol treaty, HCFCs were originally tagged for complete world-wide phase-out by 2040. In 2007 all signatories agreed to a new, accelerated schedule, for phase-out by 2030, allowing an annual average consumption of 2.5 percent from 2030 to 2040, according to UNEP ROAP.

The impact of this fast acting approach, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity use of more than 70 million U.S. households over the next 30 years.”

The problem stems from an economy of scale. Millions more residents of Asia -- from Chinese condos and Indian spa resorts to Indonesian beachside bungalows – have been switching on their AC units in the last two decades than when the original treaty-based benchmark projections were made. So, while life is becoming more comfortable, all that “cool” is accelerating global warming. While the use of CFCs (chloroflurocarbons), another refrigerant ODS, has been curtailed -- and the ozone layer in fact has been improving, confirmed scientific research indicates that increase in HCFC-22 levels will not only impede this progress, but its use it will actually enlarge the hole in the earth’s primary atmospheric sun block.

While research is underway to create new, safe refrigerants, there’s not time to waste in the campaign to end HCFC use.

The Montreal Protocol to the Rescue ... Again!

Adopted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol is a binding international treaty endorsed by an unprecedented number (196) of nations at all levels of economic development, including China. In brief, its premise and practical application is designed to eradicate the production and use of specific substances that are proven to deplete the ozone layer. The treaty is binding upon the signatories and has been called “the single most successful international agreement to date,” according to Kofi Anan, former Secretary General of the United Nations.

According to the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), an NGO, the treaty has fostered the phase out of “95 percent of 97 ODSs in developed countries and 50-75 percent of ODSs in developing countries — placing the ozone layer on a path to recovery later this century.

Durwood Zaelke, president of IGSD and an international expert on the Montreal Protocol, notes, “The treaty is dynamic and evolving; scientists and policy makers are hoping that it can be strengthened to further protect the planet’s primary sunlight filter while also doing more to prevent the dangerous buildup of greenhouse gases.” To that end, in 2007 the signatories agreed to a more aggressive campaign to phase-out HCFCs, which, by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates, could reduce emissions by up to 16 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent through 2040.

Nations Lose Cool at UN Climate Conferences

Since 1995 the Conference off Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been meeting for the purpose of reaching consensus on a pervasive treaty to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, especially CO2. The discussion is deeply complex: What is the nature of this activity? Who’s responsible? What’s anyone going to do about it? All important questions, but, as President Barack Obama observed during his address before the assembly at the Bella Center on December 18, there wasa fundamental deadlock in perspectives”.

If one relies solely on mass media headlines, the 2009 COP15 in Denmark last December revealed a hole in the fabric of international relationships to rival the one in the ozone layer. The key issues lay waste in a compost heap of unrefined, national self-interest. Armed riot-police, agenda-twisting heads of state, mission-driven NGOs of every shade of green, bottom-line driven corporations, earth revelers, and the purely curious clashed and no substantial agreement was reached. Political and economic entitlements among both developed and developing national interests cast long shadows over any hope of protecting earth’s fragile climate.

Just as bad, COP15 coverage did little to engage the general public to begin to understand how one’s lifestyle is impacting and impacted by climate change. The average citizen consumer is actually growing weary of the topic. What is to prevent the possibility that “Countdown to Copenhagen” might be followed by “Meltdown in Mexico”, when the parties meet for COP16 this November in Cancun?

What is the Price of “Cool”?

“Only when climate protection can be convincingly framed in terms of self-interest will the chances of a meaningful global climate agreement improve,” notes Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff in the Financial Times, December 21, 2009. “In Copenhagen, China did not only resist being tied into collective action. It also resisted collective action by others, which would have put indirect pressure on China,” he stated.

The world clearly needs environmental heroes, and China, if it can realign its economic, social and political priorities, can emerge as a great one. The Chinese know they are in a pivotal position. The country has become the world’s largest producer of residential room air conditioners, an industry that contributes some $100 billion to it’s already buff-up GNP. The PRC’s commitment to UNEP ROAP states:

“PRC will formulate and implement technological and economic policies favorable to the coordinated development of environment with economic development and continue to implement and improve environmental protection policies and measures which are found effective and to adopt a broad range of methods to protect the environment and control pollution.” (link)

In addition to providing governments, including China’s, with direct technical assistance for phase-out, UNEP ROAP has drawn up and implemented an impressive information, education and communication strategy (IEC). Because of its truly global nature, the ozone campaign must employ every possible contemporary strategy to motivate public action, one perhaps more extensively than those targeted to help out in the wake of huge natural disasters, such as the typhoon in Bali or earthquake in China, and even more generalized than a pandemic, such as H1N1 flu. There is no isolated self-interest that is invulnerable to a failure in the effort to protect the ozone layer.

The “Medium is the Message”

Tailoring the proper message – one that breaks the issue into understandable, appealing bites -- is as critical to the success of the effort as articulating the scientific basis for action and securing the endorsement of political leadership of the treaty. Mr. Bagai explains that, “The campaigns’ constituent components promote engagement and forge focused action in the region at all levels.”

Choosing the right expressions to inspire desired behavior has been a challenge. Framing the argument in apocalyptic terms has not proven successful; in fact, such fear-mongering is often met with cynicism or, worse, apathy.

Mr. Bagai notes, “I believe that humanizing messages would help change people’s behavior. For ozone layer protection, we try to talk about the effects of depletion on health issues, such as eye cataracts and skin cancer from UV radiation.”

One of UNEP ROAP’s most promising ozone depletion and global warming communications vehicles is Perfectly Cool (PC), a 22-minute documentary film that premiered on BBC World News “Earth Report” series in 2009. It is an engaging overview of the increasing use of HCFC-based air conditioners in China and the search for a substitute refrigerant in a way that includes the science, public policy, industrial and consumer perspectives. Because it insinuates that even well-entrenched self-interests can successfully be marshaled to reach a common goal, it fulfills the prediction by the mid 20th Century Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan that “The medium is the message.”

“The problems of ozone layer depletion and climate change are not necessarily easy issues for a layperson to understand,” said Durwood Zaelke. “Perfectly Cool is important because it turns the complex details into a compelling story that anyone can follow.”

The film was produced by a consortium of international organizations, including UNEP ROAP OzonAction, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), World Bank, GTZ-Proklima, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE), and Television for the Environment (TVE) in London.

According to Douglas Varchol the film’s director, “We found the average Chinese consumer highly aware of environmental issues. Most everybody said that the climate appeared to be changing, that things were getting hotter.” A prolific documentary filmmaker / journalist, Mr. Varchol has been exploring the many facets of the issue, such as how gender issues impact global climate change throughout Asia and Africa. Clips of some of his coverage of COP15 may be screened at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YivBhKZOhU.

Heat’s On About Getting Cool

Back to air conditioning in China. While everyone is happily getting cooler, the heat’s already on -- throughout Asia in fact -- to find a way to refine and retool the AC industry for starters. Perfectly Cool serves two functions. First, it is a lesson not only for the importance of developing new, ozone- and climate-friendly coolants and appliances. Second, it sets a standard for how to educate the public on a complex issue to garner full attention and targeted action.

“We focused on what the Chinese industry is doing about making an environmentally friendly air conditioning unit that everybody will buy because it is priced right, energy efficient, and the constituent cooling gas won’t harm the atmosphere,” Varchol continues. The film’s protagonist is a young research’s scientist, and the narrative follows his efforts at one of the giants in the residential air conditioning business in China to figure out just how to it is being done.

“‘Perfectly Cool’ is a key way for IGSD to reach out to a wide range of viewers and engage them in two important issues that affect the entire world,” adds Zaelke. “Providing the scientific details and supporting research on ozone and climate change is important for certain audiences, but technical papers do not have the ability to capture the attention of a global audience, and that is what we need to do if we hope to solve these two overwhelming problems.”

On the industrial front, educational programs for the air conditioning industry are being held to enable manufacturers to meet with scientists and to discuss new technologies that will enable them to produce more ozone-friendly products.

 “While everybody wanted to be cool, there was an awareness to do the right thing environmentally. The people we interviewed said that they trusted to the manufacturers and the government to insure that the right environmentally - friendly products were for sale,” Varchol says.

UNEP ROAP’s current ozone education campaign includes subtitling the film and promoting distribution to local theatres throughout Asia. It was shown to journalists at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok in October last year, hopefully to encourage more, similar coverage of otherwise complex science-based issues about the environment. Other ozone media outreach includes regional traditional media (print and broadcast) as well as “viral” new, interactive media, such as blogging and online social networking, (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube etc.) to engage more of the public in the conversation.

Much like UNICEF’s “Ambassadors” campaign, that recruits regionally prominent personalities from sports, entertainment and even politics to speak out on behalf of otherwise complex or devastating social issue, Perfectly Cool features China’s pop star singer Sa DingDing as a “spokes-model”. The subconscious message is that to be “cool” one needs to be “perfectly cool”.

At another level, the UNEP OzonAction Paris office created an Asian-friendly cartoon character, “Ozzie Ozone”, to carry age-appropriate messages to educate young children in school and activity groups. There’s even an international Ozone Day (September 16) during which time educational events are to be scheduled.

On the corporate front, the campaign includes cause-related marketing by engaging highly-recognized brands to participate and add their “halo” of acceptability to what otherwise may seem a distant, complicated or otherwise unappealing issue. Multi-national brands including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Unilever have made ozone-layer protection and climate change part of their social responsibility campaigns in the region.

“Above all,” cautions Mr. Bagai, “the message should accurately reflect the urgency of the situation and how ordinary people’s lives may be affected.”

The campaign must be working, for according to Mr. Varchol, “We found the average Chinese consumer highly aware of environmental issues.”

-- ## --