Though late to the party, the United States has finally arrived. The Biden Administration has issued its first rule requiring cuts in climate pollutants, specifically hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
Last month, in celebration of Earth Day and as a part of rejoining the Paris Agreement, the United States pledged to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Towards this end, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a phasedown in the production and import of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the US by 85% over the next 15 years.
Ready, AIM, Fire
This is the EPA’s first action taken under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act of 2020. AIM, put into effect at the end of December 2020, directs EPA to address HFCs by:
- Phasing down the production and consumption of listed HFCs.
- Managing these HFCs and their substitutes.
- Facilitating the transition to next-generation technologies.
“The AIM Act is one of the most significant environmental policy laws passed in recent years,” said Karen Meyers, Vice President of the Rheem Manufacturing Company, and Chairman of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, in the EPA press release. “This HFC allocation rule is key to achieving an orderly HFC phasedown in the United States, creating a uniform federal approach to this effort, and capturing significant projected environmental and economic benefits.”
Many countries have a similar program already in place, having implemented a global phasedown of HFCs as outlined in the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which has been ratified by more than 119 countries.
EPA’s proposal will set the HFC production and consumption baseline levels from which reductions will be made, and establishes an initial methodology for allocating HFC allowances for 2022 and 2023. Allowances are expected to be announced by October 1 of this year.
It also allows for the transfer of those allowances; establishes provisions for the international transfer of allowances; establishes requirements to support compliance with phasing down hydrofluorocarbon production and consumption; establishes recordkeeping and reporting requirements; releases certain data to provide transparency, and supports implementation of the program.
In addition, the ruling creates a compliance and enforcement system. For example, one of the most powerful chemicals in this class, HFC-23, often arises as a byproduct of making Teflon and other plastics. The proposal institutes tracking measures, mandates third-party auditing, and requires that suppliers put the chemicals in reusable cylinders that would make it harder to traffic illegally.
Finally, the proposal outlines how EPA plans to issue allowances for specific applications, such as mission-critical military applications.
Why Are HFCs Such a Problem?
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are a group of industrial chemicals primarily used for cooling and refrigeration. They were originally developed to replace stratospheric ozone-depleting substances that are currently being phased out under the Montreal Protocol, mentioned above.
However, they are not much better than the chemicals they were designed to replace. HFCs are fairly short lived in the atmosphere, lasting only 15 to 30 years, compared to 300 to 1,000 years for carbon dioxide. But according to the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, their impact on the climate can be hundreds to thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide per unit of mass because of their heat-trapping properties. For example, the most abundant HFC is 3,790 times more damaging than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
Next Generation Proposals
In addition to establishing HFC reductions, the EPA finalized new refrigerant options through the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program. These options — for retail food refrigeration, residential and light commercial air conditioning, and heat pump equipment — have lower global warming potentials and provide flexibility for the industry. The EPA hopes these will support businesses while they transition to alternatives needed to meet the AIM Act’s HFC phasedown reduction steps. For specifics, see: https://www.epa.gov/snap
Social and Economic Benefits
According to the EPA press release, the new proposal will have many environmental and financial benefits.
For example, EPA estimates that the present value of the cumulative benefits of this action will be $283.9 billion from 2022 through 2050.
The total emission reductions of the proposal from 2022 to 2050 are projected to amount to the equivalent of 4.7 billion metric tons of CO2 – nearly equal to three years of U.S. power sector emissions at 2019 levels.
In 2036 alone, the year the final reduction step is made, this rule is expected to prevent the equivalent of 187 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This is roughly equal to the annual greenhouse gas emissions from one out of every seven vehicles registered in the United States.
A global HFC phasedown is expected to avoid up to 0.5 °C of global warming by 2100.
“Put simply, this action is good for our planet and our economy,” says EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan, who anticipates the creation of jobs related to needed innovations and the manufacturing of new climate-safe products.
The proposal has not yet appeared in the Federal Register (FR). But if interested in reading and/or commenting on the public docket, go to https://www.regulations.gov/docket/EPA-HQ-OAR-2021-0044
EPA will accept comments on this proposal for 45 days after publication in the FR.
The agency plans to finalize this rule later this year.
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