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Do I need to replace my AC or fridge? Understanding the new EPA rule on Hydrofluorocarbons

The EPA on Monday announced a new rule that targets a greenhouse gas that's common but probably not too familiar to many Americans: Hydrofluorocarbons. These gases are widely used in home and commercial refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps. John Yang discusses the rule with Kristen Taddonio, a senior climate and energy advisor at Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden's plans to combat the growth of greenhouse gases has many facets to it, and would affect many segments of our lives, power, transportation, housing, and more.

    Today, the EPA announced a new rule that targets a greenhouse gas that's important, but less familiar to many Americans, hydrofluorocarbons.

    John Yang has the details.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are powerful greenhouse gases that are widely used in both residential and commercial refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps.

    Today's EPA proposal would cut the U.S. production and import of HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. The agency estimates that would prevent almost a full degree Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the century.

    Kristen Taddonio is a senior climate and energy adviser at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, which works to strengthen environmental law. She worked previously at both the EPA and the Energy Department in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

    Kristen, thanks so much for thanks so much for joining us.

    In layman's terms, can you help us understand why HFCs are so potent in climate change?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    Certainly.

    So, we have all heard about carbon dioxide, or CO2, and we know that it is responsible for much of the world's warming. However, there are these other classes of climate pollutants called short-lived climate pollutants, of which HFCs are one of the most potent.

    So, if you go out today and emit a pound of CO2, that creates a certain amount of warming. If you go out and emit a pound of HFCs, it is thousands of times as potent as CO2 at warming the globe. So that's why it's so important to be phasing these chemicals down.

  • John Yang:

    Oftentimes, when we see the EPA or see the government move to limit the production or the output of greenhouse gases, we see environmentalists on one side and industry on the other.

    But that is not the case in this — in this instance; is that right?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    That is correct.

    This has been a remarkably bipartisan, commonsense climate action. The American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, which passed and was actually signed into law by Trump last year, continues a legacy of bipartisan support for HFC mitigation efforts.

    HFC mitigation was initially proposed under the Bush administration, continued and strengthened under the Obama administration, signed into law by the Trump administration. And now the Biden team is taking it in for the win for the United States, to actually establish the U.S. as a leader on this issue.

  • John Yang:

    And this proposal, today's proposal from the EPA, does not eliminate HFCs. It just sort of phases them down, but not to zero.

    And, also, it doesn't limit their use in products, in sort of end use products. Why is that?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    So, that's right.

    We know that scientists have told us we have about 10 years to take fast action on climate change. And mitigation of HFCs is one of the most important initial actions that we can take. So, what EPA is doing here is really starting strong out of the gate, and allocating to different sectors of the economy an amount of HFCs, based on the allocation schedule that Congress actually passed.

    So, this is a first step we may and we hope to see EPA continue by setting commonsense requirements for certain end use applications. But, today, what EPA is doing is sending a strong signal that the U.S. is ready to start phasing HFCs down, not out, down.

  • John Yang:

    And are they're readily available or substitutes for HFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners and the like?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    If you bought a refrigerator recently, you might actually already have a climate-friendly alternative in use.

    So, manufacturers, both in the United States and internationally, have been transitioning to alternatives for many years at this point. If you go out and buy a new car today, chances are your car is using a refrigerant that is much better for the climate. And the rest of the U.S. manufacturing sector is soon to follow with climate-friendly alternatives as well.

  • John Yang:

    And viewers may be wondering, are they going to have to — will they have to replace their refrigerators and air conditioners? And will this add to the cost of those products?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    In a word, no, this will not add to the cost of your products.

    And we know this because of history. We have already been through a transition in refrigerants before. Refrigerators used to use CFCs, which were not only ozone-depleting substances. They were incredibly potent greenhouse gases as well.

    And when industry transition from CFCs to protect the ozone layer, it had a good credit benefit. But we also saw, over that same time period, consumer prices for refrigerators and other products like air conditioners come down. And we have no reason to expect that that trend will change.

  • John Yang:

    I know that researchers have found that a big source of HFCs, the release of HFCs, is from refrigeration systems in grocery stores, leaks in these systems.

    How will this address that?

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    This is very true.

    So, unlike domestic refrigeration, which tends not to leak too much, grocery stores use very large systems. This is a very different technology. They have many pipes and fittings. And so that does create a larger opportunity for leaks. It has been found that, in the grocery sector, it's not uncommon to see leakage rates exceeding 20 percent per year.

    So, what this initial step will do is send a signal to the U.S. grocery industry that it's time to start the transition, if you haven't started it already, and hopefully encourage them to start accounting for and better managing those refrigerant leaks.

    And doing so is not only common sense for the environment. It can also be common sense for business. Leading organizations are already finding that, by managing these grocery store refrigerant emissions, they have fewer instances where they're losing food, right, because there's a lot of product loss associated with a refrigerant loss.

    So it's a win-win for the environment and for the bottom line.

  • John Yang:

    Kristen Taddonio of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, thank you very much.

  • Kristen Taddonio:

    Thank you.

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