US Push to Phase Down Global Warming Inducing Refrigerants Blocked by Trump Administration, Moves to the States
- Apr 21, 2020 6:19 pm GMT
When we think about climate change, we usually think about reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but other gasses also contribute to the problem. Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants, the chemicals we use in our air conditioning and refrigeration systems (we used to call them Freon), are also major climate change contributors. Indeed, refrigerant emissions are rising so rapidly they threaten to undermine progress made to mitigate CO2 emissions. The Obama administration recognized the potential climate threat posed by HFCs and advanced several policies to phase down their use. Since Donald Trump’s election, the administration and its allies blocked those policies, either actively or through malign neglect. In response, state governments are stepping up to advance the HFC phasedown. Those efforts appear to be progressing, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The domestic air conditioning industry is struggling to manage this expansion of regulations. Those struggles could well turn into delays for the general public should manufacturers have insufficient time to produce the new refrigerants and equipment the new regulations require. The industry is imploring the federal government to impose nationwide standards, but so far, those pleas have gone unheeded.
HFCs go from problem solver to problem causer
The great irony of the HFC emissions problem is that these refrigerants were originally introduced as a solution to a pressing environmental problem: ozone depletion caused by widespread chorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerant use. The most striking manifestation of this problem is the ozone hole over Antarctica. Over thirty years ago, the Montreal Protocol set a schedule to phase out CFCs, it was signed by nearly all the world’s countries, and, for the most part, it worked. The global air-conditioning and refrigeration industries now largely use HFCs instead of CFCs, and the ozone hole is healing.
The Protocol’s story would have an unqualified happy ending except that, pound for pound, HFCs are thousands of times more potent contributors to global warming than CO2. Also, their emissions are growing rapidly, mostly due to leaks from air conditioners and refrigeration equipment. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if global HFC emissions continue to grow at their current rate, by the year 2050, they will have the same climate change impact as between 7% to 45% of that year’s global CO2 emissions. The actual portion will depend, in part, on the world’s ability to curtail CO2 emissions by then. We could succeed at driving down CO2 emissions, but see that success undermined by HFC emissions growth.
The Obama administration takes action
Responding to the threat posed by HFC emissions, the Obama administration advanced two policies. In October, 2016, it joined with almost 200 other countries to sign an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. That amendment phases down the production and consumption of refrigerants that have high potential to contribute to climate change, and nearly, but not entirely, eliminates them. The Kigali Amendment, named for the Rwandan capital in which it was signed, doesn’t directly regulate HFCs. Instead, it seeks to reduce the potential that all of the refrigerants produced and used combined have to warm the atmosphere. It calls for countries to phase down climate-warming refrigerants in distinct steps, with different schedules for richer and poorer countries. For rich countries like the US, those steps start with a small reduction in 2019, and end up in 2036 with overall refrigerant climate change impact reduced by 85% from where it was in the early twenty-teens.
Contemporaneously, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published new rules: Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) 20 and SNAP 21. Although these rules share a similar goal with the Kigali Amendment—reduce refrigerant contribution to climate change—they take a very different approach. Unlike the Amendment, the EPA SNAP rules ban specific refrigerants in specific types of equipment. For example, they disallow the use of the most common HFC refrigerants in chillers (equipment that chills water that is typically used to cool large office buildings and factories), starting on January 1st, 2024. That disallowance applies only to chillers manufactured on or after that date, and already installed equipment wouldn’t be affected. The EPA rules also ban the use of other HFC refrigerants used in equipment found in cold storage warehouses, supermarkets, and household refrigerators and freezers.
The domestic refrigerant and air-conditioning equipment manufacturers immediately supported the Kigali Amendment and the new EPA SNAP rules. Most of the other rich countries that signed the Kigali Amendment quickly codified it into law. All that was needed for the phasedown to proceed in an orderly manner in the US was for the Senate to ratify the Amendment.
What one administration can do, another can undo
So far, there’s been no Senate ratification vote, and there is unlikely to be one as long as President Trump is in office. In 2018, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote an open letter to the president, co-signed by nearly two dozen other conservative groups, urging him to reject the Amendment. The letter writers declared “The Kigali Amendment would not advance the purpose of the Montreal Protocol, but would instead turn a treaty aimed at saving the ozone layer into a global warming treaty.” With those words, the leaders of the conservative movement drew a line in the ever-warming sand that the Trump administration, and its allies in the Senate, are unlikely to cross.
Obama-era HFC regulation took another body blow in August 2017 when the US Appeals Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Congress only granted the EPA authority to regulate ozone-depleting refrigerants, not global-warming-inducing refrigerants. The decision, authored by Brett Kavanaugh a year before his elevation to the US Supreme Court, somehow ignored a NASA study released two years earlier that concluded that HFCs actually do deplete the ozone layer. That depletion is much smaller than that associated with the CFCs they replaced, but it’s not zero. Ultimately, based on Kavanaugh’s opinion, nearly all of the EPA’s rules for disallowing HFCs were vacated.
The states step up
When it became apparent that New Year’s Day 2019, the scheduled start date for the reductions mandated by the Kigali Amendment, was going to pass without the federal government taking action, state governors began to step up. First, in September 2018, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law the California Cooling Act, which was principally based on the EPA rules the US Appeals Court had vacated (SNAP 20 and 21). Washington, Vermont, and New Jersey followed soon afterwards, and more states jumped on the bandwagon. Currently, four states have enacted regulations based on the EPA SNAP rules, three more are close but delayed by the pandemic, and eight more are at some point in the legislative development process. Many of these states are not letting the pandemic slow them down. For example, Colorado is holding hearings as planned regarding its proposed regulations.
Eliminating a dominant category of refrigerants and replacing it with new climate-friendly alternatives, including new equipment designed to use those alternatives, represents a major technological change. Ideally, a nation wouldn’t make such a change on a state-by-state basis. For example, it puts a lot of stress on refrigerant and equipment manufacturers, who are seeing their domestic market break down into at least into at least two sub-markets: States that adopt the EPA SNAP rules, and all the other states. Furthermore, the states adopting the EPA SNAP rules are not doing so completely uniformly. There are a few subtle differences between some of the new state regulations.
That domestic market profusion makes things difficult for manufacturers and distributors. What sorts of air conditioning and refrigeration systems should they be developing, testing, manufacturing, and shipping to market? Which refrigerants should those systems contain? It’s not a matter of just taking a system and charging it up with whatever refrigerant a given state requires on a given day. Lots of the new climate-friendly refrigerants require specialized equipment designs, and manufacturers typically need years to design, test, and train contractors for new products. The industry’s problems could eventually become problems for the general population. With so much uncertainty, the risk grows that building managers and builders in some states will encounter much longer than usual waits to get new equipment installed or replaced.
Industry demands federal action
Given all the uncertainty state-by-state refrigerant regulation presents for refrigerant and air conditioning equipment manufacturers, it’s not surprising they’re looking to the federal government to impose nationwide regulations. According to a recent message from Stephen Yurek, the President and CEO of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, “Industry needs Congressional action on HFCs now more than ever.” There’s currently a bipartisan bill up for consideration in the US Congress, the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM Act), which would codify parts of the Kigali Amendment into US law. With the pandemic and the election distracting legislators, and Trump still in the White House, its odds of passing this year are poor.
When will the federal government take action to impose nationwide rules? HFC regulations aren’t the only climate change mitigation policies to fall by the wayside during the Trump years. Other examples include the Paris Agreement and automobile fuel-economy standards. It’s going to come down to the voters this November, to decide whether or not the next federal government supports a wide variety of climate policies, including the HFC phasedown.
Image Caption: The US Climate Alliance provides support to state governors advancing climate change mitigation policies. Governors from 24 states are members. So far, 4 have implemented HFC regulations, and another 11 are considering proposed regulations. The map above shows the locations of all of those states.
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