Cooling with Less Warming: Time to Get the Climate-Changing Pollution Out of New Fridges and Freezers

Today NRDC and its partners are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to set a deadline for getting a powerful climate-changing pollutant out of new refrigerators, freezers, and a variety of other products. 

The chemical, a hydrofluorocarbon known as HFC-134a, is a “super greenhouse gas” that packs a wallop to the climate.   Pound for pound, it has 1,430 times the global warming kick of carbon dioxide.  Scientists warn that if the rapid global growth in HFCs is left unchecked, these chemicals will be responsible for a major share of future climate change (see here, p. 11, and here, p. Q.63).

So today NRDC and two partners – the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and the Environmental Investigation Agency – filed a Clean Air Act petition telling EPA that HFC-134a should be quickly replaced with safer alternatives.  (EIA is separately filing a supplemental petition.)

EPA has already approved use of alternatives that have at least 250 times less impact on the climate than HFC-134a – including newer HFCs, hydrocarbons such as isobutane and propane, and even CO2 itself.  When used as coolants or in insulating foams, these alternatives can deliver the same or better energy efficiency while doing far less damage to the climate when they leak into the atmosphere.

Under Section 612 of the Clean Air Act, EPA is required to keep an up-to-date list of safe alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons, the chemicals that were phased out 20 years ago for badly damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.  Under the “Significant New Alternatives Program” – known as “SNAP” – EPA evaluates not only whether a new chemical is safer for the ozone layer, but also whether it causes or contributes to other health or environmental problems, including global warming.  

EPA approved 134a for a range of uses – including refrigerators, freezers, and car air conditioners – more than 20 years ago to replace 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 years since then, EPA has approved a range of other chemicals that do 134a’s job with equal energy efficiency, but have only a tiny fraction of its heat-trapping power.  When new, safer chemicals are approved, it’s time to take older, more dangerous ones off the safe-alternatives list.

Last year, EPA approved an earlier petition from NRDC and its partners to set a schedule for ending use of 134a in new car air conditioners (see here).   It can now be replaced by a new HFC – with the geeky name HFC-1234yf – that has only four times the “global warming potential” (GWP) of CO2.  That’s a 358-fold improvement over 134a.  EPA hasn’t set the specific schedule yet.  But since EPA’s landmark clean car standards give car makers compliance credit for switching to this new refrigerant, there’s every reason to require a quick changeover in new cars over the next few years.  

In today’s petition we’re asking for quick EPA action to pull 134a from use in other products where safer alternatives are already approved.  The new petition asks for four specific things:

  1. Set deadlines for replacing 134a with new low-GWP HFCs or hydrocarbons refrigerants in home fridges and freezers and stand-alone retail fridges and freezers.  The changeover should be completed within two years of when the first low-GWP model is offered for sale in each appliance category. 
  2. End use of 134a in new car air conditioners as soon as possible, but not later than 2017 model vehicles (which are actually marketed in 2016).  To make sure that cars designed for the new refrigerant (1234yf) are properly maintained and repaired, restrict the sale of 134a to certified technicians.  And to keep “do-it-yourselfers” from contaminating broken A/Cs designed for 1234yf by refilling them with 134a, stop the sale of 134a in small cans by big box stores, gas stations, and other retail outlets. 
  3. End use of 134a in non-essential products like Dust-Off sprays, Silly Strings, and Poop-Freeze, and in other aerosol products where there are safer propellants or pump-spray and other alternatives.
  4. Set up a clear framework with pre-set timelines for transitioning away from 134a and other high-GWP HFCs in each product category, once products using approved alternatives first come on the market.  That framework will send clear and predictable market signals to encourage new product designers and manufacturers, and it will ease the EPA’s burden of responding to a stream of petitions like these.

EPA’s actions to move away from the dangerous high-GWP HFCs here at home under the SNAP program will help America show its global leadership in protecting our climate.  As I’ve written here, the U.S. is already leading a laudable effort to win a global HFC phase-down schedule under the Montreal Protocol, the highly effective treaty to protect the ozone layer and assure the safety of replacements for ozone-destroying chemicals.  More than a 100 nations, both developed and developing, support the U.S. proposal.  China and India opposed the proposal during last year’s negotiations, but are now reconsidering the advantages of an orderly HFC phase-down that maintains their access to global markets that are already changing to superior technology.

By acting at home, we can show other countries the way forward, while American companies take the lead in the technologies and alternatives that will dominate tomorrow’s markets.