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After four years of inaction, the EPA is finally regulating this superpollutant

Sales of air conditioners are soaring. Regulating the heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons in them is crucial.

The exterior of an apartment building showing an air conditioning unit in many of the windows. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Carbon dioxide gets the fame and attention, out of the greenhouse gases. But there are others that are even more effective at trapping heat; they just exist in much smaller concentrations, so they don’t usually face the same level of scrutiny or regulation.

The United States is finally taking aim at an important type of these lesser-known superpollutants: hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in air conditioners and refrigerators. The Environmental Protection Agency announced a rule on Monday, first reported by the New York Times’s Lisa Friedman, that it will phase out the coolant’s use by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The EPA estimates the rule would cut down on the equivalent of 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from 2022 to 2050 — about equal to three years of US power sector pollution.

HFCs have only been used in appliances since the 1990s, as a replacement for ozone-depleting chemicals, but their use has grown at a terrifying rate. While HFCs still only comprise about 1 percent of total greenhouse emissions, they are thousands of times better at trapping heat than carbon over a 20-year period.

Left unregulated, global HFCs would add another half-degree Celsius of warming by 2100, according to the EPA. That half-degree is crucial to avoid — it’s the difference between the world we have today and the one we will have soon at 1.5 degrees Celsius, and means crop failures, Arctic ice-free summers, and cities facing unmanageable flooding.

And it’s especially important to start phasing out HFCs now, since the global stock of air conditioners is rising rapidly in a warming world: According to United Nations’ Climate and Clean Air Coalition, there will be 10 AC units sold every second for the next 30 years. The alternative chemicals all have some impact on global warming, but natural (meaning not human-made) options have a much smaller footprint, according to Project Drawdown. Ammonia, for example, has almost zero impact.

That’s why the EPA’s new proposed regulation that sets the first cap for manufacturing and importing HFCs in the US is very good news.

But after years of former President Donald Trump kneecapping US climate policy, another big task awaits for President Joe Biden to rein in HFCs: ratifying the 2016 Kigali Amendment, the global agreement to phase down these dangerous chemicals by 85 percent before 2050. It’s one of many amendments that has been added to the Montreal Protocol since 1987, a treaty that has been used to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals.

Every one of these amendments was ratified and implemented successfully by the US —except Kigali, the one that came along just as Trump and Republicans took power and brought climate action to a standstill.

Just before President Barack Obama left office, his administration helped negotiate the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase out HFCs and replace them with alternative chemicals.

To date, more than 110 nations have ratified the Kigali Amendment, passing the threshold for it to enter into force. The United States still isn’t one of the countries that has ratified it because Trump never submitted the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for ratification.

“It is important to move fast” on HFC pollutants, Natural Resources Defense Council climate and clean energy director David Doniger said, noting that progress on HFCs still continued despite Trump. Doniger thinks Congress can finally ratify the amendment on a bipartisan basis, which would provide a degree of permanence for Biden’s actions and assurance to the world ahead of the next global climate talks.

While the Trump administration waffled on HFCs, 17 US states have passed bans or restrictions to begin their own phasedowns. Now there is finally momentum. Biden recently announced along with China that the US would support the Kigali Amendment targets, and Biden will finally submit the treaty to the Senate to ratify.

Signing the treaty would likely have less of an impact than the US actually regulating these emissions. But the EPA couldn’t do that on its own because in 2017 a federal court struck down the Obama EPA’s first attempt to regulate HFCs, saying the agency didn’t have authority under the Clean Air Act. Since Congress has now given the EPA the needed authority, the next step will be accepting public comment and finalizing the rule later this year.

There was bipartisan and industry support for updating the EPA’s mandates, but Congress didn’t act until late 2020, when it finally passed a measure in the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act directing the EPA to regulate HFCs. Though members of both parties were on board with the proposal, it was still an uphill climb to convince key Senate Republicans to attach the measure to the year-end omnibus.

One of the last pieces falling into place is the federal government’s role in phasing out this superpollutant. It’s a lesson we keep having to learn again and again, on the role a proactive Congress plays in speeding up the adoption of climate solutions. HFCs are an important piece of the solution.

“As we come up with policies [to limit warming to] 1.5 degree or 2 degrees Celsius, you can’t hope to get there if you are going to add a whole half-degree in HFCs, so it’s absolutely critical to meet these goals,” Doniger said.