White House, Industry Quicken Pace of HFC Phase-Down

Today the White House convened industry leaders to pledge reductions in and replacements for HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), the super-potent climate-changing chemicals used in air conditioning and refrigeration, insulating foams, and aerosol products.  Held a week before President Obama joins world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York, the White House event will help quicken the pace of the transition to next generation technologies that use safer chemicals and less energy.

Once a few companies break out with new chemicals and products that use them, the transformation of whole industries picks up speed.  At today’s event, which I had the opportunity to attend, 20 companies and two trade associations in the chemical, refrigeration, air conditioning and retail food and merchandise sectors recounted steps they’ve taken and new commitments they’ve made to reduce use and emission of the most potent (“high-GWP”) HFCs and replace them with a range of safer compounds.  Federal agencies also announced steps to approve more alternative products, to increase government procurement of HFC-free products, and to fund R&D of even more climate-friendly, energy-saving equipment.  A White House fact sheet lists the industry and government commitments, and Counselor to the President John Podesta praised them here.

One particularly valuable industry commitment is an initiative to modernize state and local building codes that currently pose obstacles to some of the most climate-friendly coolants.

The industry participants also pledged support for amending the Montreal Protocol to phase down HFCs world-wide over the next decades.  And the White House reinforced steps the Environmental Protection Agency has already begun taking under the President’s Climate Action Plan to end the use of high-GWP HFCs in major categories where alternatives are already available – EPA’s so-called SNAP regulations under the Clean Air Act. 

The Montreal Protocol is the treaty that saved the ozone layer by eliminating CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and nearly all other ozone-destroying chemicals world-wide.  Encouragingly, a World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environment Program science panel reported last week that measurements now confirm that the ozone layer is healing, as atmospheric levels of long-lived CFCs have begun to decline. 

The science panel noted that, although undertaken to save the ozone layer, the CFC phase-out has delivered huge climate protection benefits – five times the benefits of fully implementing the Kyoto Protocol – because CFCs were tremendously powerful heat-trapping chemicals.  But the panel also warned that the rapid growth of HFCs is eroding that climate benefit.  If HFC growth is left unchecked, then by the middle of this century climate damage from HFCs will nearly erase the climate benefit from having eliminated CFCs.

A wide array of nations supports adopting the HFC amendment.  The U.S., together with Canada and Mexico, has sponsored one amendment proposal -- and White House and State Department officials renewed their support today -- while a similar proposal comes from Micronesia and other small island nations.  China’s President Xi joined President Obama in bilateral commitments last year to support an HFC amendment.  More than 110 nations, both developed and developing, have declared their support.  There’s hope that the new government in India will reconsider the prior government’s opposition.  A few Gulf States have raised issues about air conditioning in extremely hot climes, but these issues can be resolved.

The international cooperation that enabled the Montreal Protocol to succeed is a ray of hope in the struggle to safeguard the climate.  Adopting an HFC amendment would build confidence that countries can reach new climate treaties.

Today’s White House event will help reinforce to the world that the transition from HFCs to better alternatives is well underway in the United States, as well as in Europe, Japan, and other big markets.  Governments and industries that lag behind will miss the market transformation and the business opportunity.  This train is leaving the station.