Energy & Environment

Senate approves climate treaty limiting potent greenhouse gases

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) speaks to a reporter after the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon as heads to a vote in the Senate Chamber on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.
Greg Nash

The Senate on Wednesday voted to ratify a climate treaty limiting the use of highly potent greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), although the U.S. has already taken steps to comply with the terms of the accord. 

In a vote of 69-27, the Senate voted to ratify the Kigali Amendment, which calls for phasing down HFCs. HFCs are frequently used in appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators and can be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of warming the planet.

While the approval of the treaty is a big symbolic step, the country already has laws in place along similar lines.

In 2020, the U.S. passed a bipartisan bill that requires phasing down HFCs by 85 percent over 15 years when compared to a baseline level. 

That measure was seen as a rare bipartisan climate win, pushed through by Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.). 

One reason such a measure may have been able to gain bipartisan traction is support from industry, which has already been transitioning toward alternatives. 

“Ratifying the treaty sends the signal to the rest of the world that we’re on board with this HFC phasedown and it removes a barrier to competition for our domestic manufacturers,” said Chris Jahn, president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemical manufacturers. 

Wednesday’s action was also bipartisan, with 21 Republicans joining Democrats in supporting it, including GOP Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.), John Boozman (Ark.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Cindy Hyde-Smith (Miss.), John Kennedy (La.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rob Portman (Ohio), Mitt Romney (Utah), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Todd Young (Ind.).

And while the U.S. is already moving toward the treaty’s goals, University of Michigan environmental policy professor Barry Rabe said that Wednesday’s move may give the U.S. more climate credibility on a global stage. 

“Just in the initial years of this decade, the U.S. has really begun to move from the position of a global laggard, certainly on HFCs and certainly on methane, into more of a leadership role and I think that would be further cemented or underscored by ratification of Kigali,” Rabe said. 

He also said it’s important to maintain credibility for trading partners going forward. 

“There is a question of how the world would feel — trade partners would feel — about dealing with the U.S. for its alternatives if it could get them from another country that was producing HFC alternatives,” Rabe said. 

The Senate vote doesn’t automatically ratify the treaty, which must also get formal ratification from President Biden, who supports it. 

In signing on to the agreement, the U.S. will join nearly 140 other countries in making the pledge to phase down HFCs. 

Its approval also opens up certain trading markets for U.S. manufacturers. 

Under the agreement, parties to the treaty will be forbidden from trading HFCs with countries that are not parties to it, so without signing on, the U.S. would struggle to trade the HFCs that are still on the market while phasing down. 

“Ratifying Kigali will guarantee that American businesses continue to have access to international markets for refrigerants long into the future,” Carper said in a floor speech. 

Some Republicans still opposed the treaty, however, arguing that it is too soft on China. 

“For far too long, Communist China has been granted ridiculous exemptions and access to precious U.S. taxpayer dollars because of its bogus classification as a ‘developing nation.’ It’s time to end this failed, soft-handed approach NOW,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in a statement.

HFCs were introduced as an alternative to chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were depleting the ozone layer. And while the switch addressed the immediate issue, they also were significant contributors to the planet’s warming. 

The Kigali Amendment is an amendment to the Montreal Protocol, a prior treaty that called for phasing out CFCs. 

Updated at 4:43 p.m.

Tags Cindy Hyde-Smith John Kennedy Tom Carper

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