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EPA Moves To Cut A Group Of Powerful Greenhouse Gases

Refrigerators on sale in 2018 in Pennsylvania. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to phase out the use of cooling chemicals that are powerful greenhouse gases.
Refrigerators on sale in 2018 in Pennsylvania. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to phase out the use of cooling chemicals that are powerful greenhouse gases.

The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on a powerful class of greenhouse gases that are used in refrigerators, air conditioners and building insulation. On Monday, the agency announced a new regulation that would dramatically decrease production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, over the next 15 years.

It's the first concrete regulatory step the Biden administration has taken to tackle planet-warming emissions since the president announced ambitious goals 10 days ago to cut U.S. emissions by half in the next decade.

When they get into the atmosphere, hydrofluorocarbons are extremely good at trapping heat — much better than carbon dioxide. Some HFCs can linger in the atmosphere for 250 years or more. Total U.S. emissions of fluorinated gases, of which HFCs are a subset, have beenincreasing steadily in the last three decades because of ever-increasing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.

The EPA's new regulation would slash HFC production, import and use, beginning in 2022. The agency said its goal is to reduce HFC production and import by 85% over the next 15 years. The pandemic relief bill passed by Congress late in 2020 includes a section thatrequires such cuts to hydrofluorocarbons and directs the EPA to help industries that use HFCs transition to cleaner substitutes.

The environmental impact of phasing out HFCs could be enormous. Global demand for air conditioners is skyrocketing as the planet warms. The Natural Resources Defense Councilestimates that, if HFCs are phased out worldwide, it could eliminate the equivalent of two years of global carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury.

The U.S. is set to play a huge role in that. The EPA estimates that its new regulation would cut the equivalent of 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2036, which is about the same amount of carbon dioxide that U.S. power plants release in three years.

And, the agency said, the economic and health benefits associated with curbing global warming are significant: The EPA estimates that phasing out HFCs could save the economy about $280 billion over the next three decades.

The EPA's new regulation also signals that the U.S. will now follow through on its climate promises, including those made during the Obama administration. In 2016, more than 150 countriesagreed to phase out HFCs as part of an international climate agreement. The U.S. was one of the signatories, and then-Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker the agreement. But the Trump administration did not ask the Senate to ratify the agreement, effectively reneging on America's promise, and many global leaders are skeptical that the U.S. is serious about its new commitment to climate action.

A broad coalition of groups support phasing out HFCs from air conditioners, refrigerators and other common cooling appliances. "Replacing HFCs is a critical and totally doable first step to head off the worst of the climate crisis, and we have safer alternatives ready to go that will save industry money in the bargain," said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate and Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In an interview with NPR shortly after Congress passed limits on HFCs, Samantha Slater with the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute said the bill represented an opportunity for the companies that the industry group represents.

"We want to make the new refrigerants here in the United States and then export them across the world as well," Slater said. There are a wide variety of other chemicals, some of them naturally occurring, that can be substituted for HFCs without replicating the planet-warming effects.

Consumers will likely see little or no change in their appliances. New appliances will use safer refrigerants. If an older air conditioner or refrigerator needs its cooling gas replenished, the person repairing the appliance will be more likely to use an HFC alternative.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.