US Embarks on 85% Slash of Ubiquitous Super-Pollutant

With international cooperation, the phase down of hydrofluorocarbons is expected to avert up to 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the next century, a critical move for our warming planet. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan on April 19, in Jamestown, N.C. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced the nation’s first-ever limits on a super-pollutant that is thousands of times more potent at heating up the planet as compared with carbon dioxide. 

The new regulation creates a process to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), coolants primarily used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, by 85% over the next 15 years — part of the Biden administration’s strategy to half the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

“EPA is taking a major action to help keep global temperature rise in check,” the agency’s head, Michel S. Regan, said in a statement. “The phasedown of HFCs is also widely supported by the business community, as it will help promote American leadership in innovation and manufacturing of new climate-safe products. Put simply, this action is good for our planet and our economy.”

The regulation comes several months after environmental groups, industry leaders, Democrats and Republicans all in December championed the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, which gave the EPA authority to ban the super-pollutants. 

“By the end of the year, the home appliance industry will be almost fully transitioned out of using HFC refrigerants for residential refrigeration products,” the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute said in an email. 

The trade group had previously joined 35 other industry and environmental organizations in petitioning the EPA to phase down the pollutant, as there is a resounding consensus that it will be a boost to U.S. manufacturing and the economy. The EPA estimates that the phase-down will produce a net gain for the economy of $284 billion from 2022 through 2050, and will yield savings for the industry. 

The global HFC phase-down will avoid adding almost another degree Fahrenheit — nearly half a degree Celsius — to our planet. HFCs were on track to do as much climate damage to our earth as all CO2 emissions before 2016 when 197 nations, including the United States, signed the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol in a bid to phase down HFCs. More than 110 countries have ratified the amendment. 

“We avoided a nightmare scenario,” said Kristen Taddonio, a senior climate and energy adviser for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, a nonprofit environmental group. 

Because former President Donald Trump never brought the Kigali amendment to the U.S. Senate for ratification, America has remained stagnant in its fight against HFCs. Since then, 16 states took matters into their own hands and proposed phase downs of the pollutant. Six of those states have finalized their regulations. Biden in January meanwhile — one of his first acts upon taking office — formally directed the State Department to send the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for ratification within 60 days.

Just last month, China announced it would ratify the amendment. 

HFCs are only semi-harmful, in contrast to their predecessor chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), another refrigerant. CFCs, which are 5,000 to 10,000 times more potent than CO2, were used until the 1987 Montreal Protocol, when they were replaced with HFCs — which are several hundred to several thousand times more potent than CO2. 

Now, countries are working to replace the HFCs with hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) which have essentially the same potency as CO2. 

“Think of it as going down a ladder,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director in the Climate & Clean Energy program at Natural Resources Defense Council. “We are moving down the ladder to more and more benign compounds.” 

Doniger says he believes the EPA schedule for the phase-down is completely doable, and will probably even be sped up, in part because the phase out of CFCs was so successful: the original CFC agreement with the Montreal Protocol was a 50% reduction over a dozen years, but they ended up having a 100% reduction of CFCs in only 10 years. 

“Over and over again we have been able to speed things up,” Doniger said. “And the Kigali Amendment allows for acceleration.”

Taddonio says that, because HFCs only live for a relatively short time in the atmosphere (13-14 years), eliminating them quickly will create a “cooling impact” on our planet at a time when we need it most. 

“In a world that is struggling to get off of fossil fuels, we have to do everything,” said Doniger. 

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