Vermont Joins HFC Phase-Down Club

Credit: Painting by James Hope

The Green Mountain State is the latest to join the club of states taking action to phase down the super climate pollutants called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

On May 21st Vermont’s legislature adopted S.30, HFC-reducing legislation patterned on laws already in place in California and Washington State. New York, Maryland, and Connecticut have committed to adopt these HFC limits under their existing air pollution laws. Other states in the 24-member U.S. Climate Alliance, are expected to follow suit.

HFCs are chemicals used in refrigeration, air-conditioning, insulating foams, and aerosols. They are extraordinarily potent climate pollutants, with hundreds to thousands of times the heat-trapping power of CO2. As a result, even small concentrations of HFCs in the atmosphere can significantly harm the planet. And HFC atmospheric concentrations have been rising rapidly as HFC use has grown. 

The good news is that curbing HFCs can bring climate relief relatively quickly. Once released in the atmosphere, HFCs decompose within a few months to a couple of decades, as compared with CO2, which lasts for well over a century. This is why HFCs are called short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). Phasing down HFC use globally can avoid an additional quarter to half degree Celsius of warming by 2100.  (That’s huge when you’re trying to hold overall warming below 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C.)

Like California’s and Washington’s laws and the regulations under development in other states, Vermont’s new law will prohibit the use of HFCs in major applications where there are safer alternatives. The rules mirror EPA rules issued during the Obama administration, but that were partially struck down by a federal court that found a gap in EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act (see here). The states, operating under their own laws, are now filling the gap to keep the HFC transition on schedule.

The states’ HFC transition schedule is based on EPA and industry assessments of companies’ ability to transition to safer alternatives. The restrictions apply to new equipment. They do not require anyone to replace existing products that are still in working order.   

Reducing HFC emissions is low-hanging fruit. Alternative technologies are already available for the end-uses covered by the new Vermont legislation and a nationwide transition to climate-friendly alternatives will boost the competitiveness of American companies in the global market while significantly benefiting the climate.

A nationwide transition to climate-friendly refrigerants will come at no extra cost to consumers and industry has estimated that a U.S. HFC phasedown will add $5 billion annually in U.S. exports and create approximately 150,000 new jobs nationwide. In addition, the climate-friendly alternatives are often more energy efficient than their predecessors. It thus comes as no surprise that HFC regulations enjoy wide support from both industry stakeholders and the environmental community.

State leadership is keeping our country’s HFC transition on the rails, and is keeping the U.S. in sync with the global phase-down now underway under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that saved the ozone layer. It’s is time for other states to climb aboard the HFC train. Let’s see which one goes next.