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US cracks down on climate-warming refrigerants

23 September 2021 Amena Saiyid

Climate-warming refrigerants and fire suppressants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) will see their production and use in the US whittled down to 15% of to-be-determined baseline levels by 2036 under a final rule released 23 September.

Starting with a 10% reduction in 2022, the phasing down will occur in a gradual fashion through an allowance allocation and trading program that Congress in late 2020 mandated the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implement under the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act.

The EPA also will be part of an interagency task force, which will include the Department of Homeland Security, aimed at preventing illegal imports and trading of HFCs.

HFCs are a synthetic class of chemicals that were initially promoted and used as alternatives to ozone-depleting substances to meet the Montreal Protocol of 1987. Since then, scientists have noted that these chemicals have very high global warming potential, at least 1,000 times more potent than CO2, and pushed for their replacement as well.

"Cutting these climate 'super pollutants' protects our environment, strengthens our economy, and demonstrates that America is back when it comes to leading the world in addressing climate change and curbing global warming in the years ahead," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a 23 September statement accompanying the rule, which was proposed in May.

Business groups, notably the US Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute, said EPA has maintained an "appropriate transition" for manufacturers. The Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) said its members—who produce and use HFC refrigerants—are pleased that the EPA finalized the allocation rule on time, as the AIM Act required.

"Predictability is a very important aspect of the manufacturing process, and this timely rule ensures that our member companies are aware of this regulatory terrain for the coming years," AHRI President Stephen Yurek said.

Following China's lead

The US rule comes a week after China prohibited direct emissions of HFC-23 from production processes for the commonly used refrigerant hydrochloroflourocarbon (HCFC-22).

China's directive, which also includes guidelines for management and disposal of HFC-23, was released to coincide with the "Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer" that for China took effect on 15 September after President Xi Jinping announced he would accept it at the Leaders Summit on Climate in late April.

In his 27 January executive order to tackle the climate crisis at home and abroad, President Joe Biden directed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to submit the Kigali treaty to the Senate for ratification within 60 days of signing the order. That order is yet to be fulfilled despite bipartisan support for the AIM Act in the Senate.

"Now that the Biden administration is putting the AIM Act into action, there's no reason to delay ratification of the Kigali Amendment. Let's join the rest of the world as we phase down hydrofluorocarbons and lead this new era of climate action," said US Senator Tom Carper, Democrat-Delaware, who joined Regan for the rule's release.

As a signatory to the Paris climate agreement, Biden announced a goal on 22 April to halve GHGs across the US economy by 2030. Regan said the rule will help the US meet this climate goal, though the contribution of HFCs to total US GHGs is small in comparison to CO2 releases. In 2019, EPA reported HFCs as well as other chlorinated hydrocarbons represented 2.8%, or 170.6 million metric tons (mt) CO2-equivalent, of total US GHGs.

Montreal Protocol helped avoid "irreversible" climate impacts

The Montreal Protocol, and the subsequent Kigali amendment that took effect in January 2019, are responsible for avoiding about 1.7 degrees Celsius of warming due to mandatory reductions of super-polluting chemicals—chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), HCFCs, and now HFCs—used primarily as refrigerants in cooling equipment.

"Without the Montreal Protocol, climate change would already be extensive and irreversible, and we should once again thank this brilliant agreement for all that it has done," the Washington-based Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development said on International Ozone Day, which falls on 16 September.

Owing to the HCFC rule, EPA projects total GHG reductions between 2022 and 2050 will amount to the equivalent of 4.6 billion mt of CO2—nearly equal to three years of US power sector emissions at 2019 levels or 1.606 billion mt CO2-equivalent.

In 2036 alone, the year of the final reduction step, the EPA said, "this rule is expected to prevent the equivalent of 171 million metric tons of CO2 emissions—roughly equal to the annual GHG emissions from one out of every seven vehicles registered in the United States."

EPA to establish baselines

In line with the AIM Act and its refrigerant rule, the EPA will establish baselines for consumption and use, issuing allowances each year on 1 October so companies may produce or import HFCs in the following calendar year.

Companies will not be allowed to roll unused allowances, which are valid between 1 January and 31 December, over to the next year.

Under the rule, the EPA said it will establish a mechanism through which allowances can be traded and sold, with an offset that results in a greater reduction of HFC production or consumption. The agency also will have to ensure that sufficient allowances are available to meet the estimated needs in six types of uses listed in the AIM Act:

  • Fire suppression in armored vehicle engines and shipboards;
  • propellants in metered dose inhalers;
  • defense sprays;
  • structural composite preformed polyurethane foam for marine use and trailer use;
  • etching of semiconductor material or wafers and the cleaning of chemical vapor deposition chambers within the semiconductor manufacturing sector; and
  • onboard aerospace fire suppression.

The EPA said it will revisit the trading program and its allocations for subsequent years based on how it fares in the first two years of implementation.

David Doniger, senior strategic director with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate & Clean Energy Program, credited the EPA with not only phasing out HFCs but also starting the process for evaluating substitutes.

"Moving from HFCs to climate-friendlier alternatives is an important part of President Biden's plan to meet the climate crisis by cutting America's heat-trapping emissions at least in half by 2030—with big benefits for jobs, our health and a safer future," Doniger said.

EPA said it will facilitate transitions to next-generation technologies by establishing restrictions on specific HFC uses and evaluating the availability of substitutes for the regulated HFCs. The agency said it has received applications to limit HFC use in refrigeration, air conditioning, aerosols, and other applications, but said it would evaluate whether further restrictions are needed in a separate rulemaking.

Posted 23 September 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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