The Biden administration has announced stringent new rules to reduce the use of coolants used in most air conditioning units and other appliances in the name of fighting climate change, with experts warning it will likely mean Americans will have to pay more to stay cool.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week issued a final rule to slash the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 40 percent by 2028 while decrying the chemical a “climate super-pollutant.”
The rule dovetails with earlier efforts under the 2020 American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act to reduce the production and consumption of these chemicals by 85 percent by 2036.
HFCs are a type of synthetic refrigerant that is widely used as a replacement for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are known for having properties that deplete the ozone layer.
However, while HFCs do not damage the ozone layer, they are potent greenhouse gases that EPA says contribute to climate change.
HFCs are used as refrigerants in most cooling systems, including refrigerators, heat pumps, and air conditioners.
Since the HFC phasedown first began on Jan. 1, 2022, the import and production of HFCs have required special allowances, with EPA saying in its Tuesday announcement that the number of these allowances will experience “a significant decrease.”
While there are HFC alternatives and more are being developed, it’s unclear how quickly the market could adapt and what kind of an impact the phaseout will have on the prices of air conditioning.
Ben Lieberman, a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) who specializes in environmental policy, wrote in an analysis in 2022 that wholesale prices for commonly used refrigerants had already increased 400 percent since EPA first embarked on the HFC phaseout a year prior.
“Service technicians say that replacing refrigerant lost from a leak now costs upwards of $800, about double what it did a year ago,” Mr. Lieberman wrote. “Moreover, EPA’s HFC quotas tighten in the years ahead, so the ratchet will keep turning, surely causing homeowners’ bills to increase further still.”
And while the environmental benefits of phasing out HFCs have become conventional wisdom, these, too, have been challenged.
Some research has estimated that an HFC phasedown could avoid up to half a degree Celsius of warming by 2100, a goal that EPA cited in its announcement.
“The U.S. HFC phasedown program, bolstered by domestic innovation to develop alternative chemicals and equipment, is paving the way for the United States to tackle climate change and strengthen global competitiveness,” Joe Goffman, principal deputy assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in a statement.
However, the claim that phasing out HFCs by 85 percent by 2100 would prevent a half a degree Celsius of warming has been challenged, with critics arguing that this conventional wisdom is based on questionable assumptions and dubious foundations.