Refrigerators for sale in 2018 in Pennsylvania. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to end the use of cooling chemicals, which are powerful greenhouse gases. Keith Srakocic / AP hide caption
Keith Srakocic / AP
Keith Srakocic / AP
The Environmental Protection Agency is taking action against a potent class of greenhouse gases used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and building insulation. On Monday, the agency announced a new regulation that will drastically reduce the production and use of fluorocarbons or HFCs over the next 15 years.
This is the first concrete regulatory move the Biden administration has taken to tackle planet warming emissions since the president announced ten days ago ambitious targets to cut US emissions in half over the next decade.
When released into the atmosphere, fluorocarbons are extremely good at trapping heat – much better than carbon dioxide. Some HFCs can remain in the atmosphere for 250 years or more. Total emissions of fluorinated gases in the United States, which include HFCs, have increased steadily over the past three decades due to the ever increasing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.
The EPA’s new regulation would reduce the production, import and use of HFCs from 2022. The agency says its goal is to reduce HFC production and imports by 85% over the next 15 years. The pandemic relief law passed by Congress in late 2020 includes a section providing for such cuts in fluorocarbons and directs EPA to help industries that use HFCs transition to cleaner substitutes.
The environmental impact of HFC leakage could be enormous. Global demand for air conditioning is skyrocketing as the planet warms. The Defense Council for Natural Resources estimates that the global phase-out of HFCs could avoid global carbon dioxide emissions by two years by the middle of the century.
The US will play a major role in this. The EPA estimates that its new regulation would save the equivalent of 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2036, roughly the same amount of CO2 that US power plants will release in three years.
And the agency says the economic and health benefits associated with curbing global warming are significant: The EPA estimates that the HFC phasing out could save the economy about $ 280 billion over the next three decades.
The EPA’s new ordinance also signals that the US will now keep its climate promises, including those made during the Obama administration. In 2016, more than 150 countries agreed to phase out HFCs as part of an international climate agreement. The US was one of the signatories, and then Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker the deal. But the Trump administration has not asked the Senate to ratify the deal, which is effectively breaking America’s promise, and many global leaders are skeptical that the US is taking its new commitment to climate action seriously.
A broad coalition of groups supports the phasing out of HFCs from air conditioners, refrigerators and other common refrigeration appliances. “HFC replacement is a critical and perfectly feasible first step to tackling the worst of the climate crisis, and we have safer alternatives that can save industry money,” said David Doniger, director of the Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program for natural resources.
In an interview with NPR shortly after Congress exceeded HFC limits, Samantha Slater, of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, said the bill represents an opportunity for the companies the industry group represents.
“We want to manufacture the new refrigerants here in the US and then export them all over the world,” said Slater. There are a variety of other chemicals, some of which are naturally occurring and which can replace HFCs without replicating the effects of planet warming.
Consumers are unlikely to see any or no changes to their devices. New devices use safer refrigerants. If an older air conditioner or refrigerator needs refilling of refrigerant gas, the person repairing the unit will be more likely to use an HFC alternative.