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The conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons
In 1987, the Montreal Protocol, ratified by President Ronald Reagan, set the gold standard for international cooperation on reducing harmful atmospheric pollutants. At hand was the issue of harmful, ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), often used as coolants in refrigerator and air conditioning units. As a result of the treaty, in which every single country in the world agreed to phase out the production and consumption of these substances, the ozone layer is expected to almost fully recover by mid-century.
Now, however, despite being non-ozone-damaging, recent evidence indicates that the chemical alternatives created as a result of the Montreal Protocol, called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), in fact contribute significantly to the warming of the planet. While HFCs remain in the atmosphere for a much shorter period of time than carbon dioxide (CO2), they are several thousand times more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat, thus contributing significantly to climate change.
An often under-considered aspect of the climate debate is the voracious energy-appetite of air conditioning (AC), of which HFCs are a crucial component. By 2050, energy demand from cooling homes, offices and public buildings will triple to 6,200 terawatt-hours, representing approximately a quarter of today's electricity consumption. HFCs only represent about 1.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. today, but the Energy Administration Agency predicts that they could increase by 15 percent annually.
This is why Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and John Kennedy (R-La.), recently introduced an amendment to the American Energy Innovation Act, which would regulate and reduce HFCs by 85 percent by 2036, compared to 2011-2013 levels. The amendment is modeled after the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which the U.S. hasn't ratified yet but would be on track to meeting its targets if the bill passes.
Some people on the political right, however, are less enthusiastic about tackling environmental problems in this manner. They are, often understandably, skeptical of mandate-heavy, top-down environmental regulations that constrict business freedom and inflate consumer prices.
For example, earlier this year, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed off on a rule relaxing the regulations surrounding HFC leaks and maintenance programs for companies in the refrigerating business. The EPA's argument was that it had exceeded its statutory authority in creating the regulations in the first place and that the regulations placed burdensome constraints on American businesses. Similarly, critics of the recent Senate proposal argue that it will stifle business and increase consumer prices.
Yet even for conservatives and libertarians that dislike regulations, the move to phase out HFCs falls firmly within the realm of negative externalities. Indeed, according to the National Resources Defense Council, that earlier relaxation of regulations would result in the release of atmospheric pollutants equivalent to a million extra cars on the road, whereas the proposed savings would amount to only $24 million. Clearly, the external environmental impact far exceeds the minute savings that would be dissipated rather broadly in the American economy.
Quick calculations comparing average car emissions to America's total carbon emissions suggest that if we could remove the equivalent of a million cars from the road for only $24 million, we could cut all of the U.S.'s carbon emissions for a measly $26.7 billion, or the entire world's for only $169.6 billion. Opposition to these rules thus appears to be more ideological than evidence-based. And there is even a strong - and successful - precedent for conservative leadership on removing ozone-depleting, atmospheric pollution. The Montreal Protocol itself was ratified by President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican.
POLITICO Pro reported that American companies and industry have actually been the driving force behind getting the government to phase out HFCs, primarily because "U.S. companies hold many of the patents for the next generation of coolants that don't contribute to climate change." For example, Chemours, a chemistry company based in Delaware, has recently launched a new $300 million production facility in Texas, where it will produce a hydrofluoro-olefin (HFO) coolant called Opteon YF, with a 99.9 percent lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) than previously used HFCs, as well as zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP). Moving to HFOs as an alternative could cut out the equivalent of 50 billion tons of CO2 by 2050. Currently, China dominates the global HFC-industry, generating over 60 percent of the world's HFC-production. Moving towards environmentally friendlier alternatives such as HFOs would also give American companies an edge over Chinese competitors.
The argument that consumer prices will inexorably go up due to more expensive coolants assumes an inert refrigerating industry that wouldn't adapt to new circumstances and misunderstands the rapidity and scale of American innovation. Indeed, there is plenty of economic opportunity to be found in cleaner coolants, not only by reviving parts of American industry and manufacturing, but also by reducing our reliance on China.
The Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) emphasizes that many of its members have already invested billions in developing coolant alternatives, which would create 33,000 new jobs, grow U.S. manufacturing output by $12.5 billion, and increase exports by 25 percent. Furthermore, the proposed phase-out of HFCs would provide the market with much needed certainty and, assuming other countries ratify the amendment, create a simplified international regulatory framework rather than an erratic patchwork of differing regulations and laws.
Ultimately, the phasing out of these HFCs would not only serve a great environmental purpose, but also create new opportunities for the American economy as we seek to recover from the pandemic and reduce our reliance on China. The recent amendment proposed to the American Energy Innovation Act along these lines is also a rare and encouraging sign of environmental bipartisanship and solidarity. Conservatives, led by evidence-based solutions, should see this as a fitting extension to Reagan's environmental legacy.
Christopher Barnard is the National Policy Director at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter @ChristopherBarnardDL.