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Lee led the charge against ozone-depleting substances

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  2 April 2015 12:00 AM GMT

By Rajendra Shende

When I landed in Singapore for the first time as a UN diplomat, I quickly realized why the late Lee Kwan Yew, its first prime Minister, made that famous statement about air-conditioning. Asked which invention of the 20th century he considered the most important, he instantly replied: “Air-conditioning!”

Lee thought that air-conditioning changed the ture of tropical civilization and then development became rapid. Without air-conditioning, according to Lee, one can work only in the cool early morning hours or at dusk. “The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air-conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked. This was key to public efficiency,” he was quoted as saying.

Having experienced air-conditioning for the first time only at the age of 21 in the IIT computer room, I felt that Lee’s thinking was kind of weird. After all, was it not the same tropical civilization that built the grandiose complexes like Angkor Wat with efficient labour in Cambodia, Singapore’s neighbour? But Lee was right as far as modern business and technology is concerned. Computers, hospitals, research laboratories and specialty manufacturing do need air-conditioning, probably more than human beings.

Interestingly, though Lee’s working style was more tilted towards the doctrine of ‘authoritarian democracy’, he surprisingly showed intellectual flexibility in very early ratification of an intertiol treaty - the Montreal Protocol - that many considered, in its formative stages, would jeopardize the air-conditioning industry and push it to bankruptcy. Some conservatives even thought that air-conditioning would vanish from the world as a result of the Montreal Protocol.

Lee must have panicked at that time. But he had seen many tumultuous years since the 1950s and was the last to panic because “he thought doing so would never positively affect the outcome of any situation”, as his daughter once wrote about him.

The Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer was closely associated with the refrigeration and air-conditioning industries as most of the ozone-depleting chemicals - chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and HCFCs (hydro chlorofluorocarbons) in particular - were used as refrigerant gases in cooling appliances like refrigerators and room air-conditioners.

The Protocol in 1987 stipulated that these man-made refrigerants had to be phased out in stages. The substitutes for CFCs and HCFCs were not ready when the intertiol community, as a matter of urgency, crafted the Montreal Protocol.

The urgency emerged mainly due to the need to save the world from the depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer which could have allowed the deadly ultra-violet rays from the Sun to stream down on the Earth.

That would have been catastrophic to the life on the Earth and the consequences devastating. Increased skin cancers and cataracts, reduced food production, impact on human immune system, material damages and many others; the scientists had given their warning, now it was for the policymakers to take action.

While India and Chi kept negotiating the provisions of the Montreal Protocol, particularly on the issues of fincial assistance to the developing countries and also on availability of ozone depleting substances for the tropical countries for their refrigeration and air-conditioning needs, Lee in 1989 ratified the treaty even before the establishment of the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol. In 1991, the fund assured fincial assistance and technology transfer to countries like Singapore.

Lee, being a leader par excellence, looked far in the future, understood the sigls and decided to join the global movement for elimiting ozone-depleting substances, well before India and Chi. He did not get hoodwinked by the ozone-deniers and refused to get misled by doomsday predictions about the air-conditioning industry.

Though not a technology expert, Lee probably saw clearly that it was not the air-conditioning industry at stake as most of the opponents to the Montreal Protocol and even Western skeptics projected, but the life on the earth was at risk.

Eventually the industry found ozone-benign altertives. Lee’s air-conditioning continued to cool Singapore without any damage to its business. What’s more, Singapore complied with all the provisions of the Montreal Protocol and elimited CFCs well ahead of time and is well on the way to elimite HCFCs - again well ahead of schedule.

Lee had another obsession - prosperity of Singapore’s small and medium enterprises, as I learnt during my UN job. Singapore is a small country. It does not have Samsungs and Hitachis to prosper on. Lee always viewed the well-being of Singaporeans through the healthy small enterprises.

The Montreal Protocol, interestingly, also controlled number of ozone-depleting solvents used by small manufacturers of electronics and computer-ware. Lee’s government requested help from the United tions Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide for urgent replacement for such solvents, which he thought was an equally critical priority for Singapore.

The Ozoction Programme of UNEP that I led forged the partnership between big business from Cada, the US and Japan with Singapore’s small industries to experiment on ozone-friendly solvents and filly elimiting their use. Lee’s government did not take any fincial assistance from the Fund and even contributed $0.5 million for the benefit of other developing countries.

One of my Singaporean friends wrote to me a few days ago: “When I entered the air-conditioned hall where Lee’s coffin was kept, to bid him farewell, I thought for a moment that his body should be buried in air-conditioned grave!” I replied: “yes, I agree but air-conditioning without ozone depleting and without global warming refrigerants.” IANS

(Rajendra Shende is IIT-alumnus, a former director of UNEP and currently chairman of TERRE Policy Centre. The views expressed are persol. He can be contacted at

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