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Progress Made Toward Phasing Out Planet-Warming 'Super' Greenhouse Gases

FILE - A NOAA photo shows aurora australis near the South Pole Atmospheric Research Observatory in Antarctica. When a hole in the ozone formed over Antarctica, countries around the world in 1987 agreed to phase out several ozone-depleting chemicals.

Rare bipartisan support for new climate legislation brings the U.S. one step closer to ditching a group of potent planet-warming chemicals.

Democratic and Republican senators recently introduced an amendment to the American Energy Innovation Act that would reduce production and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—chemicals widely used in refrigeration, air conditioning and insulation. The legislation is also supported by environmental groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization that represents American businesses.

“This amendment would spur billions of dollars of economic growth in domestic manufacturing and create tens of thousands of new jobs, all while helping our planet avoid half a degree Celsius in global warming,” Democratic Sen. Tom Carper, co-sponsor of the amendment, said in a statement.

Brief history of HFCs

HFCs were commercialized in the 1990s as alternatives to chemicals that deplete ozone, the important atmospheric layer that protects the planet from damaging solar radiation.

In a global response to protect the ozone layer, 197 nations signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to phase out use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

Although HFCs are much less damaging to the ozone layer than CFCs, they harm the planet in a different way. As greenhouse gases, HFCs trap heat in the atmosphere and cause the planet to warm. HFCs are sometimes called “super” greenhouse gases because they are up to 4,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“HFCs also have lifetimes in the atmosphere of five to 50 years. So, once the molecule is emitted, it stays in the atmosphere for a long time, and therefore it can accumulate to large concentrations,” said Guus Velders, senior scientist of air quality and climate change at the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).

Global solutions to global problems

In 2009, researchers sounded the alarm about the effects of HFCs on climate change. In 2016, the international Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was established to phase down use of these planet-warming gases. Reduction of HFC emissions under this amendment could avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise by the end of the century.

“The Kigali Amendment is the first fully funded, multilateral, legally binding action to control global climate," said David Fahey, director of the Earth System Research Laboratories at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Kigali is the first really strong motion forward to do something. And this, of course, isn’t going to solve the climate problem. But it is part of the solution.”

FILE - A coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming, July 27, 2018. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have been found to be up to 4,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
FILE - A coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming, July 27, 2018. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have been found to be up to 4,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

More than 100 countries have ratified the Kigali Amendment, making it legally binding. The United States is not among them.

The White House has said little about why it has not ratified the Kigali document, despite urging by Republican senators.

“It’s very important that other countries, especially the bigger countries, commit to [the Kigali Amendment]," said RIVM's Velders. “A lot of countries look to Europe, the United States and Japan to lead initiatives. It’s important that they lead by example. Otherwise, for other developing countries, it’s quite easy for them to say, ‘Well, why should we worry if the most polluting countries don’t comply with it?’”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump has rolled back previous steps to regulate HFCs and dozens of other environmental regulations, though courts have struck down some of these measures.

The new proposed legislation would require an 85% reduction in HFC production and use by 2036. HFCs would still be allowed in “essential” products that don’t have available substitutes. The list includes defense sprays such as bear repellents, medical inhalers and mission-critical military uses.

“At the end of the day, whether we ratify Kigali and have a plan to phase out HFCs, or whether we just decide to phase out HFCs, either way, it's a win for the planet if we can work to reduce HFCs,” said Caitlin McCoy, staff attorney at the Harvard Law School Environmental and Energy Law Program.

The legislation is part of the broader American Energy Innovation Act, a collection of energy-related policies that has support from business and environmental groups. The bill is expected to be brought to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Beyond HFCs

Climate-friendlier alternatives to HFCs include compounds such as ammonia, propane and hydrofluoroolefins, CO2 and certain HFCs that are less climate-warming.

Companies already are adapting.

“The U.S. is a leader in the technology that we would transition to, as well as the current technologies,” said Chuck Chaitovitz, vice president of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The technology that will replace current HFCs is already well in process.”

Policy to phase down HFC use “is important for U.S. exports and to create new jobs,” he added.

A 2018 report from industry trade groups estimated that phasing down HFC use would increase jobs and exports, while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

“The economics are pretty clear on this. But the reductions of greenhouse gases are also pretty clear that this will have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gases,” Chaitovitz said.