Cooling with Less Warming: EPA Starts Refrigerant Changeover for Car Air Conditioners

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a pair of decisions that begin a changeover of the refrigerants that do the cooling in car air conditioners.  Over the next few years, it will be out with the old (HFC-134a) and in with the new (HFO-1234yf).  We’ll be able to cool our cars with less global warming. 

Both chemicals are hydrofluorocarbons, but the 134a in your car today is a “super greenhouse gas” with 1,430 times the global warming kick, pound for pound, of carbon dioxide.  The new refrigerant, 1234yf, has just 4 times the global warming potency of CO2 and will cut the climate damage from car air conditioning by more than 300-fold.  Despite its geeky name, changing over to 1234yf will be a big step forward, because car air conditioning is one of the biggest, leakiest, and fastest growing uses of HFCs worldwide.  And if HFC growth is left unchecked, these chemicals will be responsible for a major share of future climate change.

EPA’s actions grant an NRDC petition for HFC reductions filed last year.  Under the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to keep a list of safe alternatives for chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals that badly damaged the Earth’s protective ozone layer.  Under the law, EPA must evaluate not only whether a new chemical is safer for the ozone layer, but also whether it has other health or environmental effects, including an adverse impact on the climate.   EPA had approved 134a for car air conditioners more than 20 years ago as a replacement for CFC-12.  That was a step forward at the time, because 134a doesn’t hurt the ozone layer and CFC-12 was an even more powerful contributor to climate change.  But times change and technology improves.  In the NRDC petition, we told EPA that 134a can no longer be considered a safe alternative, because other refrigerants with less impact on the climate are now available. 

In February, after a long review, EPA approved 1234yf as an acceptable alternative for use in new cars.  That action was supported by Dupont and Honeywell (who are ready to make the chemical), by most domestic and import automakers, and by NRDC.  (Two other compounds have also been approved, but car makers appear to favor 1234yf because it requires the smallest design changes to the air conditioning equipment.) 

Also last month, EPA followed up by granting our petition to start removing 134a from the acceptable alternative list. 

We’re pleased, but we’re not popping the champagne cork just yet.  The letter granting our petition (the last two pages posted here) says that EPA will need to propose a schedule for ending new-car use of 134a, take comment, and then issue a final decision.  There will be consultations with car makers and other stakeholders before that proposal is issued.  So NRDC will stay on the case to make sure EPA follows through.

Reaction among the car makers appears mostly positive.  General Motors has announced plans to start using 1234yf in some 2013 models.  The scuttlebutt is that many other car companies are quietly making arrangements with chemical suppliers.

One company, however, is balking.  At an EPA-State Department public meeting in January, Ford surprised most others present (including me) by opposing the North American proposal to phase down HFCs and, in particular, the replacement of 134a in car air conditioners.  Ford’s position was all the more surprising because the company is expected to use 1234yf in its European cars, where replacing 134a is already required by 2017 at the latest.  It seems Ford has a better idea – but so far only in Europe.

Here at home, car makers actually have incentives to act quickly, because switching refrigerants will earn them significant credit towards meeting the global warming standards set under the Obama administration’s landmark Clean Car Peace Treaty.  Those standards, applicable to 2012-2016 model cars, cover a basket of four greenhouse gases – CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, and HFCs.  Switching from 134a to 1234yf will yield twice as much credit towards the “CO2-equivalent grams per mile” standard as merely cutting leakage of 134a.

That’s okay with NRDC under the existing clean car standards, which apply through 2016.  But we think there’s no need for a credit bonus against CO2 reductions after that point.  The standards that will apply after 2016 – which EPA is currently developing together with California and the Department of Transportation – need to incorporate the full reduction in global warming pollution that’s achievable by using 1234yf.  We can’t keep cooling our cars at the cost of overheating our world.  

These sensible EPA actions on HFCs are one more reason to reject the Upton-Inhofe legislation to block the environmental agency from protecting our health and well-being from the carbon pollution that’s driving global warming.  Among other things, that irresponsible bill would take away the very Clean Air Act authority that EPA is using here to limit HFCs in order to protect the climate.  Congress must not interfere.  We must keep EPA on the job.