Cooling With Less Warming: White House Leads Push on HFCs

The push to replace the super climate pollutants known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) gained more momentum at the White House today, with new HFC-reducing actions announced by the Environmental Protection Agency, other agencies, and industry leaders. Pound for pound, HFCs have up to 10,000 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. These new American commitments give a boost to international negotiations early next month in Dubai on phasing down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.

Most notably, the White House announced that EPA will keep using the Clean Air Act to reduce unnecessary uses and emissions of HFCs. Today EPA proposed standards to curb leakage and intentional releases from HFC-containing refrigeration and air conditioning equipment. The new rules will extend to HFCs a set of leak prevention and recycling requirements that now apply to other refrigerants that harm the ozone layer.

And next spring EPA will propose a second round of "SNAP" rules that set deadlines to replace HFCs in uses where there are safer alternatives ("SNAP" stands for "Significant New Alternative Policy"). The first round of HFC "de-listing" rules were issued in July, along with the approval of new and safer alternatives. NRDC welcomed the SNAP actions taken in July, and earlier this month we petitioned EPA to de-list a wide range of additional HFC uses ripe for replacing.

The White House also announced procurement and R&D commitments by the Energy and Defense Departments and other agencies - steps that will help build markets for equipment and products using HFC alternatives and delivering higher energy efficiency.

Adding to these governmental actions, an array of companies and trade associations reported on progress implementing HFC reduction commitments made a year ago, and announced new commitments for 2015. Some examples: Chemical makers such as Chemours (formerly DuPont) and Honeywell announced expanded product lines for lower-impact refrigerants. Equipment makers such as Ingersoll Rand, Goodman (a subsidiary of Daikin), and Danfoss, announced a range of new products using lower-impact alternatives. Supermarket chains such as Roundy's and Target announced shifts to CO2 refrigeration systems. The HFC industry trade association, the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, announced new initiatives to encourage reclamation and reuse of HFCs, and to reduce illegal releases.

Finally, the Energy Department released long-awaited test results showing that alternative refrigerants perform well at high ambient temperatures - the hot temperatures experienced in large parts of the Middle East, as well as in spots like Phoenix and Death Valley here at home. Air conditioners called "mini-split" systems are widely used in many Middle Eastern countries, and these currently use refrigerants known as R-22 (an HCFC already being phased out under the Montreal treaty) or R-410A (a blend of powerfully heat-trapping HFCs). The DOE testing shows that lower-impact refrigerants can be equally or even more energy efficient in very hot climates. This testing data will be a crucial contribution to reaching an HFC agreement in Dubai next month, as it helps meet objections from Saudi Arabia and handful of other countries that they would not have suitable alternatives for air conditioning.

With all these efforts on the table in advance of the Montreal Protocol, the U.S. is leading in the transition away from HFCs - toward more cooling with less warming.

This post written with Alex Hillbrand