Keith Srakocic / AP
The Danish Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down hard on a strong class of greenhouse gases used in refrigerators, air conditioners and building insulation. On Monday, the agency announced a new regulation that would drastically reduce the production and use of fluorocarbons or HFCs over the next 15 years.
It is the first concrete regulatory step the Biden administration has taken to tackle planetary warming emissions since the president 10 days ago announced ambitious targets to halve U.S. emissions in the next decade.
When released into the atmosphere, fluorocarbons are extremely good at capturing heat – much better than carbon dioxide. Some HFCs can linger in the atmosphere for 250 years or more. Total US emissions of fluorinated gases, of which HFCs are a subset, have increased steadily over the last three decades due to the ever-increasing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.
The EPA’s new regulation will cut HFC production, imports and use, starting in 2022. The agency said its goal is to reduce HFC production and imports by 85% over the next 15 years. The Pandemic Bill, passed by Congress in late 2020, contains a section calling for such cuts in fluorocarbons and leading the EPA to help industries that use HFCs transition to cleaner substitutes.
The environmental impact of phasing out HFCs can be enormous. Global demand for air conditioners skyrockets as the planet warms. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that if HFCs are phased out worldwide, it could eliminate the equivalent of two years of global carbon dioxide emissions by the middle of the century.
The United States is set to play a huge role in that. The EPA estimates that its new regulation would cut the equivalent of 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2036, which is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that U.S. power plants release in three years.
And the agency said the economic and health benefits of curbing global warming are significant: the EPA estimates that phasing out HFCs could save the economy about $ 280 billion over the next three decades.
The EPA’s new regulation also signals that the United States will now follow 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 United States was one of the signatories, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry helped mediate the deal. But the Trump administration did not ask the Senate to ratify the deal, in fact denying America’s promise, and many global leaders are skeptical that the United States is serious about its new commitment to climate action.
A broad coalition of groups supports the phasing out of HFCs from air conditioners, refrigerators and other common refrigeration equipment. “Replacing HFCs is a critical and fully feasible first step to averting the worst of the climate crisis, and we have safer alternatives ready to go that save industry money in the process,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director for Climate and Program for clean energy in the Defense Council for Natural Resources.
In an interview with NPR shortly after Congress crossed the boundaries of HFCs, Samantha Slater of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute said the bill represented an opportunity for the companies the industry group represents.
“We want to manufacture the new refrigerants here in the United States and then export them worldwide as well,” Slater said. There are a wide variety of other chemicals, some of which occur naturally, that can be replaced by HFCs without repeating the planetary warming effects.
Consumers are likely to see little or no changes in their appliances. New appliances use safer refrigerants. If an older air conditioner or refrigerator needs refrigerant gas refill, the person repairing the appliance is more likely to use an HFC alternative.