Under President Joe Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a new rule that would sharply reduce the country’s use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are widely used for refrigeration and air conditioning.
The rule would cut the production and consumption of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The regulation comes just before the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November, and is meant to demonstrate the U.S.’s progress on cutting emissions.
HFCs are an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that can be up to thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere. The White House says that the new ruling will eliminate the equivalent of 4.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century, or about three years of emissions from the U.S.’s electricity sector. A global shift away from HFCs would allow the planet to avoid 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming, according to the EPA.
The ruling also directs companies to capture and destroy HFC-23, a chemical with over 14,000 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, starting in October of next year.
By causing a shift to more climate friendly cooling alternatives, the EPA estimates that the drawdown of HFCs will ultimately save $272.7 billion between 2022 and 2050, and will benefit vulnerable populations the most.
“Today EPA is taking a significant step forward to advance President Biden’s bold agenda to tackle the climate crisis,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan in a statement. “Cutting these climate ‘super pollutants’ protects our environment, strengthens our economy, and demonstrates that America is back when it comes to leading the world in addressing climate change and curbing global warming in the years ahead.”
Progressive lawmaker Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) applauded the ruling, saying “HFCs are superheating our planet, exacerbating extreme weather events, and threatening the physical and economic health of our communities…. We must use this action as a springboard and continue to push for the ambitious solutions we need to combat the climate crisis by passing the budget reconciliation bill.”
The ruling was brought on by a directive from Congress last year, which included the HFC drawdown plan in the end-of-year COVID stimulus package. At the time, environmental advocates celebrated the guidance on HFCs, but criticized the bill for being largely insufficient in its climate goals.
“While we welcome investment in hydrofluorocarbon phase out, we’re disappointed that this funds toxic and dangerous energy technologies like nuclear, and invests in inadequate solutions like carbon capture and storage,” said 350.org associate policy director Natalie Mebane in December. “While fossil fuel companies ride out billions in bail-outs, millions of people across America face evictions and unemployment,” Mebane continued, calling for a just recovery to the climate crisis and pandemic.
Since then, Congress and the White House have done little to address greenhouse gas emissions. The recent infrastructure and reconciliation bills are intended to be Democrats’ large climate bills, but progressive and Democratic lawmakers are up against conservative Democrats and a fossil fuel lobby that is fighting to keep climate proposals out of the bills.
Indeed, part of the reason why the push to limit HFCs was successful is because it had industry support. Though the sales of products containing HFCs generate hundreds of billions each year, chemical manufacturers have also been producing climate-friendly alternatives.
Still, the HFC ruling is a big deal, climate advocates say. Earlier this year, Project Drawdown special project director Paul West wrote that the EPA ruling, which was announced in the spring but finalized Thursday, “will likely be a drop in the bucket for consumers but a huge step forward on global climate action. The move is a critical step toward the Biden administration’s larger goal of reducing 55 percent of emissions by 2035.”