The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday finally took action to eliminate 85% of production or use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a chemical still widely used in air conditioning and refrigeration, by 15 years from now. Cutting the use of HFCs will remove one of the most damaging of emissions that contribute to global heating.
Under the EPA directive which just came out, the U.S. refrigeration industry will soon begin a slow conversion away from hydrofluorocarbons as their primary refrigerants. Photo: Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a man-made organic chemical family, have been well known for a long time to be far more dangerous than both carbon dioxide and methane (natural gas) in their ability to trap the sun’s infrared energy close to the planet and drive global heating as part of the climate crisis. As EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said yesterday in the announcement of the proposed cut in HFC contamination from U.S. sources, HFCs “can be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet.”
Trifluoromethane, one of many varieties of HFCs, has an estimated 11,700 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.
Hydrofluorocarbons came into wide use starting in the late 1980s and 1990s. They were developed as an alternative to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were agreed to be phased out under the older Montreal protocol, because of those chemicals’ known ability to destroy the atmosphere’s ozone layer.
According to the EPA statement on the rule change, “The total emission reductions of the proposal from 2022 to 2050 are projected to amount to the equivalent of 4.7 billion metric tons of CO2 – nearly equal to three years of U.S. power sector emissions at 2019 levels.”
“In 2036 alone, the year the final reduction step is made,” the statement continues, “this rule is expected to prevent the equivalent of 187 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions – roughly equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from one out of every seven vehicles registered in the United States.”
The specifics of the proposed rule are not tightly delineated yet. The EPA said in its announcement that it will “establish an initial methodology for allowing HFC allowances for 2022 and 2023”, then will proceed with proposing “a general HFC allowance and set aside pool” to ease the process of phasing out applications for the use of HFCs. It will also include some notable exceptions for military usage of the chemicals.
Prior to this announcement, the EPA had stepped into the fray early by announcing its “Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP)” program. That program provided, in the words of the agency “new refrigerant options in retail food refrigeration, residential and light commercial air conditioning, and heat pump equipment.”
The program also represents a strong change in policy from the Trump team’s approach to dealing with HFCs. The U.S. and nations around the globe had agreed in principle to drastic reductions in the use of HFCs as part of the 2016 international agreement known as the Kigali Amendment. In keeping with Trump’s consistent policy of favoring industrial needs over the needs of the public, the former occupant of the White House not only never submitted that agreement to the Senate for ratification, he also directed rolling back a rule which had ordered companies to detect and fix leaks for equipment using more than 50 pounds of HFCs.
That rule rollback under Trump is like one his team changed to allow companies drilling for and distributing natural gas (which includes methane, with over 80X the impact of carbon dioxide on global heating) to stop checking for leaks and then fixing them. The rule changes under Trump also allowed companies to avoid fixes leaks even if they had hard data demonstrating those leaks were present.
According to the EPA’s data, reducing HFCs on a global scale by the same fraction as the U.S. commitment could contribute to a reduction in total global heating of the planet by 0.5° C by 2030.
Though phase out details still require considerable work, the EPA already has one important partner on board in helping accelerate the changes. That partner is the refrigerant industry itself.
Just last month, the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), in partnership with over 35 other industry associations such as the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and allied environmental groups, filed a petition with Environmental Protection Agency to establish strict reductions on the use of HFCs in refrigerators, air conditioners, and many other appliances. They did so at least in part because, with the 2020 AIM Act in place, they were aware change would be coming soon.
Rather than have the new regulations and reduction plan drag out, the AHRI, representing over 300 manufacturers of air conditioning, heating, and commercial refrigeration and water heating equipment, led the charge to work together with the EPA on the reduction plans. The various petitioning agencies also will have a major say in the way the phaseouts happen. They have already gone on record as attempting to ease consumer and industry fears about what the new rule change might cause to happen. They said that in many cases when older equipment needs new refrigerant, there will be fully compatible alternatives which are far safer than HFCs in trapping solar energy close to the planet.
This gives the EPA a willing partner in making the shift away from HFCs.
While the move away from HFCs is a good thing, the way this announcement was made is misleading on multiple fronts. The most obvious of those is that, with the refrigeration industry on board in advance, this is far from a tough sell to manufacturers. A second and more serious misdirection is that the announcements come across as if HFCs are perhaps the dominant cause of anthropogenic (human-caused) global heating on the planet, which is far from true. Cutting hydrofluorocarbons from the emissions mix that ends up in the atmosphere will, even by the EPA’s own admission, only slightly slow the pace of global heating in the 21st century. With even the EPA referring to the impact as reducing total global heating by 0.5° C over the next eighty years, that is a far cry from the possible 4° C or more that the planet could warm by that time, which will be driven by continued direct carbon-based emissions into the atmosphere by industrial and transportation use, and by power generation, for decades to come.
The fanfare associated with the EPA’s announcement to reduce hydrofluorocarbon use also demonstrates a major missed opportunity by the Biden-Harris administration. As with many other such climate solutions the government has proposed over the years, this one comes with little sacrifice by consumers and industry alike – and little in the way of major innovation in the refrigeration industry.
In the best case, the EPA changeover from HFCs to other refrigerants should have come with support of technology development to improve the efficiency of the most needed of refrigeration applications. It also should have come with policy initiatives intended to break the increasing global addiction to air conditioning, which is growing every year in direct correlation to the rising temperatures on the planet. Just from power consumption alone, air conditioning can amount to as much as 40% or more of the urban power load. Passive cooling systems based on convection, breathable walls, and alternatives which do not require refrigerant thermal transfer for their operation, should receive far more attention in the future.
It also would not hurt if the public at large, who have air conditioning so embedded into their lifestyle, might experiment with at the very least switching off those systems every now and then in the name of long-term climate survival. This is a growing problem shared with all nations around the world, especially in regions such as Europe, Southeast Asia, and India, where air conditioning use is currently rising rapidly.