Striking Climate from the Freezer

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 24, 2021

Without all the fuss that every issue creates in Congress, Team Biden just moved the goalposts on climate with an administrative rule change that has actual practical applications.

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized rules that will reduce the use and production of hydrofluorocarbons that drive air conditioners and refrigerators by 85 percent over the next 15 years. That is a class of emissions that are said to be warming the planet hundreds of times as fast as carbon dioxide.

Actually, an enabling bill did gather bipartisan support in Congress last year — maybe because the marketplace for these pollutants is smaller than that for oil, maybe because they are considered short-lived, maybe because the authorization was buried in one of the early coronavirus aid bills, maybe because it included industry supports for alternatives.

In any event, the rule change could be accomplished by non-political staff who simply are out to address real environmental problems rather than made-up ones.

The EPA rules set a cap on hydrofluorocarbons through 2023 while supporting jobs to manufacture new alternatives, including ammonia-based mixes. The agency will scale back their use further through 2036 with additional regulation.

Long in the Making

Actually, this environmental miracle was born last September when Senate Republicans defied the Trump administration and joined Democrats to phase out these hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

HFCs replaced other chemicals that, when released into the atmosphere, eroded the Earth’s protective ozone layer. But scientists found that they still worsened global warming.

As news accounts explain, five years ago, world leaders signed the Kigali Amendment, an update to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, to rein in these so-called super-pollutants. But President Donald Trump never submitted the treaty for Senate ratification, and his administration rolled backed Obama-era policies aimed at meeting the nation’s commitments under Kigali.

Joe Biden has promised to send the treaty to Congress, though it has not been scheduled.
Nevertheless, a push by U.S. firms and environmentalists appears to have swayed lawmakers. Environmentalists basically see this rule finalization as a big deal for climate; at the least, it is a big deal for Getting Something Done.

As an environmental target, HFCs are seen as low-hanging fruit. They reflect the wide use of invisible gases seeping out into the atmosphere when we are in the supermarket, for example, reaching for ice cream or frozen foods.

Most of the chemicals in the network of pipes transporting compressed refrigerants that keep perishable goods cold are HFCs that often escape through cracks or systems that were not properly installed. Once they leak, they are destined to pollute the atmosphere.

Reducing them has obvious advantage.

Lessons Learned?

But let’s look at bit more widely. This move comes as Biden is having trouble getting a much broader set of environmental moves through a gridlocked Congress as part of his proposed $3.5 trillion spending bill that is chockful of lots of programs, including climate proposals.

The Democratic proposals, which have no Republican support, would encourage manufacture and installation of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Political divisions are proving more significant than any desire to address the obvious energy and environmental issues at hand. The EPA announcement should be telling us that with Congressional acceptance, the pros can get things done.

Stephen Yurek, head of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group, said in a statement that the rule is “a critical step in the 15-year industry-supported process of phasing down HFCs and represents a win for both the climate and the American economy.”

Maybe they should tell that to the politicians.

Indeed, the EPA has other rule changes in the making that will do more of the same — for HFCs used in appliances. The White House also has launched a task force with EPA and Department of Homeland Security to detect and deter illegal trade of the chemicals that will soon become much scarcer. The administration is also establishing a certification identification system to track shipments in real time.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer