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Can Refrigerants Be Sexy?

Can Refrigerants Be Sexy?

I was struck by two questions whilst attending a lecture on the Montreal Protocol, a landmark international environmental treaty that banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting chemicals. One, can refrigerants be a sexy issue? And two, do they need to be? An issue is sexy when it is popular, easy to talk about, conjures a lot of buzzwords, etc. And refrigerants….? Perhaps bike sharing or clean-burning cookstoves are sexy topics, but refrigerants lack in that category.

In 1974, scientists Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland linked human production of chlorofluorocarbons, a refrigerant, with the thinning of the ozone layer. The ozone layer—not to be confused with ground-level ozone which is an air pollutant caused by smog—is a protective layer in the stratosphere, which absorbs ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. A thinning of the ozone layer has been linked to increased incidences of cataracts and certain skin cancers. It is not clear if the ozone issue would have been considered sexy back in the 1980s, but the health impacts were enough to garner public attention around the issue.

CFCs were widely used in aerosols, air conditioners, and refrigeration. Significant industry opposition to transitioning away from the use of CFCs would have been catastrophic. However, in 1987, nearly every single country came together to create the Montreal Protocol. The Protocol was groundbreaking in both the speed of its implementation and its reach. It was ratified by the United States in 1989 at the hands of President Ronald Reagan and has been phasing out the use of CFCs in developed and developing countries over time.

The Montreal Protocol has been credited as the most successful international environmental treaty; the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 levels between 2045 and 2060. It has also avoided a significant amount of global warming as most ozone depleting chemicals are also greenhouse gasses. Part of the reason the Montreal Protocol enjoyed such success is that industry largely went along with it—unlike the issue of carbon emissions where their opposition has been especially vocal. The obvious reason for this is that industry had an alternative non-ozone depleting substance to CFCs: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

While HFCs helped solve the ozone crisis, their use in our daily lives is a significant contributor to global warming. HFCs are 1,000 to 9,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, although the HFC atmospheric life cycle is significantly shorter. This is why in 2016 nations of the world reconvened to discuss whether an amendment to phase out HFCs could be added to the Montreal Protocol. In October 2016, in Kigali, Rwanda, a deal by 170 countries was reached. In U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, this “ambitious amendment [was] the single most important step that we could take at this moment to limit the warming of our planet.”

This deal concerning refrigerants could prevent 0.5˚C or 1˚F of warming. Drawdown, a recently released comprehensive analysis of global warming solutions, found that managing refrigerants is the number one way to limit climate change. The U.S. contribution presented for the Kigali Amendment would account for 9% of cuts pledged in its Paris Agreement contribution. And while these developments have been extensively covered in the media, it has not permeated public discourse around the issue of climate change and global warming. This could be due, in part, to its serious lack of sex appeal.

In an effort to meet Paris Agreement commitments, the U.S. EPA finalized a rule in 2015 that would limit HFC production the equivalent of 54 to 64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2025. This rule would account for 4% of U.S. cuts under the Paris Agreement. “Under the authority of the Clean Air Act,” the EPA would change the status of HFCs from an acceptable substitute for ozone depleting chemicals to an unacceptable one, taking into account the impact of HFCs on the climate. The aforementioned Kigali deal would further limit U.S. HFC production. However, because the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol bleeds into the climate change realm, the amendment is unlikely to be well-received in the current U.S. Senate.

In early September 2017, a Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the EPA currently does not have the authority to implement its 2015 rule and regulate HFCs. The Obama Administration interpreted the statute's language to include HFCs under the section on ozone depletion, which was added after the U.S. ratified the Montreal Protocol. However, the Court ruled that the current language of the Clean Air Act only permits the EPA to control ozone depleting chemicals, not HFCs. Congress would need to expand the language to give the EPA explicit authority or pass new legislation. The Clean Air Act has only been amended twice since 1970. Interestingly, the Trump Administration along with two large U.S. chemical manufacturers argued in favor of EPA’s authority to regulate HFCs. On the winning side were two foreign manufacturers: one Mexican and one French.

Many rue the Court’s decision and count it as another “major blow” to the Obama Administration’s climate legacy. This view is, as yet, approaching hyperbole. The fact that the U.S. chemical industry is on board with further regulating refrigerants means that there are viable alternatives to HFCs. It also means that it’s possible this switch will happen through market forces as the rest of the world works to limit this greenhouse gas.

The Court ruled against U.S. manufacturing in favor of foreign manufacturing. This abrades the prevalent “America First” doctrine. Although the Trump Administration has been silent on whether it will bring the Kigali Amendment to the Senate for ratification and there have been vocal opponents of such ratification, this offers a unique opportunity for Congress. It is an opportunity to make a decision that is both popular with U.S. industry and would showcase U.S. climate leadership. To make such a decision might be to concede that greenhouse gasses warrant regulation with regards to climate—something Congress has not done.

It is possible that Congress could very well come to a decision on the regulation of HFCs in the near future. The issue of refrigerants should not be overlooked simply because it is not the most captivating facet of climate change discourse. Industry might be one of the biggest influences in the coming decisions on HFCs in the U.S. We, as consumers of information and HFCs, also have a role to play, which we can remind our elected representatives of when the time comes.

Michaela Koke is pursuing a Master's degree at the Vermont Law School.


The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily represent the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo: "airconditioning units black and white" by CWCS Managed Hosting for Flickr with a CC BY 2.0 license.

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