How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs
President Biden and his climate team have made a fast start in their effort to combat climate change at home and abroad, including a series of executive orders and a successful Leaders’ Climate Summit in the president’s first 100 days.
Most importantly, they have staked out new territory, aspiring to limit global warming to a safer 1.5 degrees Celsius level as opposed to riskier 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. To accomplish this, they are focused on winning the 10-year sprint to 2030. This is dictated by the latest science that tells us we must make significant cuts to climate pollution this decade to strengthen our chance of maintaining a habitable planet.
While time is short, winning the 10-year sprint and limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is still feasible with aggressive action to reduce not only CO2, but also the non-CO2 climate pollutants like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), methane and black carbon. It also requires protecting our forests and other natural carbon sinks. These are the essential levers to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Beyond 1.5 degrees, it is increasingly likely that the self-reinforcing feedbacks will push the planet past irreversible tipping points with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This week the president’s team delivered an important down payment on the president’s promise of fast climate mitigation when the Environmental Protection Agency announced the phasedown of HFCs, which are potent short-lived super climate pollutants. Commonly used in refrigeration, air conditioning and insulating foams, these chemicals are thousands of times more potent than CO2 when it comes to warming the planet. EPA’s authority to phase down HFCs was strengthened under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, a remarkably bipartisan piece of climate legislation co-sponsored by an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and signed into law by then-President Trump on Dec. 27, 2020.
Specifically, EPA’s action yesterday fulfils the congressional mandate to EPA to phase down production and consumption of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years through an allowance allocation and trading program. The proposed rule sets the HFC production and consumption baseline levels from which reductions will be made, establishes an initial methodology for allocating HFC allowances for 2022 and 2023, and creates a compliance and enforcement system necessary to manage the phasedown, and keep the U.S. is in compliance with the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
EPA’s proposed rule is the first regulation under the AIM Act of 2020 to address the production and consumption of HFCs. Additional rules are expected to follow, responding to petitions filed by industry, environmental groups and U.S. states requesting EPA to establish reasonable timelines for sector-based transitions.
The president’s action is supported by industry, which led the call for the U.S. to phase down HFCs. According to the U.S. Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, the HFC phasedown under the AIM Act will:
- Create 33,000 new manufacturing jobs and sustain 138,400 existing jobs between now and 2027
- Increase direct manufacturing output by $12.5 billion, and total (direct and indirect) manufacturing output by $38.8 billion between now and 2027
- Improve the U.S. trade balance in equipment and chemicals by $12.5 billion
An analysis by the Rhodium Group based on a 100-year global warming potentials of HFCs calculated that the HFC phasedown will reduce U.S. climate emissions by the equivalent of 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 15 years. But because HFCs have short atmospheric lifetimes, many scientists advise using 20-year global warming potentials when evaluating policies to reduce HFCs.
Using the more appropriate 20-year global warming potentials, the new law will eliminate 2 billion tons of CO2-equivalent over the next two decades. This is why Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said that the HFC phasedown is “the single biggest victory in the fight against climate change to pass this body in a decade.”
Globally, the phasedown of HFCs is expected to avoid up to half a degree Celsius (about 1 degree Fahrenheit) of warming this century. Recent commitments by major economies, including China, to HFC phasedowns under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol mean that these powerful climate benefits are more certain to occur. If President Biden and his climate team are able to keep up their fast action climate leadership, we will not only expand U.S. jobs and open the way to the U.S. clean energy economy. We will finally show the U.S. leadership that can begin to truly protect our endangered climate.
Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development and a co-director of the Program on Governance for Sustainable Development at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Follow him on Twitter: @DurwoodZaelke
Kristen Taddonio is a senior climate and energy advisor at the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. Taddonio worked on HFCs and energy efficiency at the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department during the Bush and Obama administrations.
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