Production and use of a ‘super pollutant’ commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment is about to experience dramatic reductions thanks to a years-long advocacy effort and an uncommon partnership between environmentalists and industrialists.
This fall, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule that will phase down U.S. production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The rule is the first major step in implementing the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act which was enacted last December, and a significant step toward President Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. climate pollution 50 percent by the end of this decade.
“This is a very big accomplishment which required a lot of time, money, planning and effort to achieve. This was a many-year effort by a large and solid group of people out of the environmental and scientific community that spent a huge amount of time educating folks on Capitol Hill, members of the environmental press and officials at EPA on this issue,” said Scott Sklar, President of The Stella Group and Adjunct Professor and Sustainable Energy Director of the Environment and Energy Management Institute (EEMI) at The George Washington University. Sklar also sits on the Advisory Board of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute – a non-profit founded by a bipartisan group of members of Congress in the 1980s to inform debate and decision making on energy and environmental policies.
According to Sklar, “no one really argued about the science” behind the need to phase down HFCs, which are powerful drivers of climate change. For example, a pound of HFC-23 is 14,800 times more harmful to the climate than a pound of carbon dioxide.
The EPA estimates its phase down of HFC production and use, which will begin in 2022, will produce total emissions reductions by 2050 equivalent to 4.6 billion metric tons of CO2 – roughly the same amount as three years of emissions from the entire U.S. power sector. The EPA rule which is part of a global HFC phase-down, is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100.
To achieve those benefits, however, advocates had to prove that a phase-down and migration to alternate, non-harmful chemicals was practical.
“The environmental community deserves a lot of credit for focusing on the practicality,” Sklar said. “Some environmental groups stepped up to work with companies and help them find technical solutions, make incremental changes and keep the prices of their products affordable for consumers.”
“The environmental community and the industry banded together in a quite unusual coalition to advocate for and succeed in passing the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act in order to phase down HFCs,” said David Doniger, Senior Strategic Director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Industry has developed or accessed a greater number of HFC-alternatives especially since 2015, including natural refrigerants, HFCs with lower global warming potential (GWP), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) and HFC-HFO blends. Many industry watchers predict those alternatives will not impact consumer prices.
“These chemicals make up a very small percentage of the value of the pieces of equipment containing them,” Doniger said. “There is maybe a few tens of dollars of refrigerant in a new car and just a few dollars of refrigerant in a new refrigerator. So even if the price of the alternative is higher – and sometimes they have been because of the patents – it doesn’t show up noticeably in final product prices.”
The AIM Act contains other measures to reduce HFC use. Those include a requirement for the EPA to issue a rule addressing HFC leakage or disposal from existing equipment. Some advocates say that rule could create opportunities to reuse that material in other equipment and further reduce the need for production of new HFCs. AIM also empowers the EPA to limit or ban HFC use in certain circumstances where a viable and less harmful alternative exists. The EPA has already approved about a dozen petitions for such restrictions. Finally, AIM also allows the EPA to accelerate the phase-down schedule if circumstances support that.
The federal initiative comes at a critical time to address both climate change efforts and industry realities.
“As the world is getting hotter, air conditioning is becoming more important,” Sklar said.
“The market for air conditioning and other cooling applications has been growing significantly in the U.S. and exponentially in the developing world,” Doniger said.
Even some climate-change mitigation efforts will drive demand for chemical coolants.
“One of our biggest needs is to decarbonize buildings and replace the use of gas with electricity,” Doniger said. “The technology that supports that is heat pumps which use refrigerants. It is critical to transition them to low-GWP refrigerants because we are going to have millions of more heat pumps.”
Sklar hopes the beginning of the HFC phase-down will also prompt federal, state and local governments, as well as institutions and corporations, to add low-GWP cooling equipment to their list of sustainability goals.
“I am hoping that big companies, like Walmart, will step up when they need new systems or build new buildings and commit to systems with lower hydrofluorocarbons,” he said. “I hope that buildings that taxpayers pay for – like schools and government buildings – will not only install great insulation and energy efficient systems but also cooling systems that lower hydrofluorocarbon use.”
The phase down of HFC production also creates opportunities to build America’s green economy and to lead innovation in cleaner building technologies.
In a statement supporting passage of the AIM Act, the U.S. Climate Alliance (a bipartisan coalition of governors from 25 states, including Maryland) said, “Transitioning towards HFC alternatives could bring as many as 33,000 new manufacturing jobs to our states and add approximately $12.5 billion per year to the U.S. economy. By creating national standards, the bill will ensure all communities have access to higher quality products and that we are giving U.S. industry the best opportunity to lead the global transition to HFC alternatives.”