Perspective  |  May 7, 2021

Opinion: New EPA coolant rule is a no-brainer for addressing the climate crisis

by Paul West

This article originally appeared on The Hill.

The EPA’s new rule to phase down the manufacturing and use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — the coolants used in air conditioners and refrigerators — will likely be a drop in the bucket for consumers but a huge step forward on global climate action. The move is a critical step toward the Biden administration’s larger goal of reducing 55 percent of emissions by 2035. What you might not know: The climate impact of this rule could be more than doubled if it’s coupled with efforts to properly dispose of the refrigerants in the appliances already in people’s homes and businesses.

Project Drawdown, the non-profit where I explore science-based solutions to the climate crisis, ranked switching to alternative refrigerants one of the top 10 climate solutions we have in-hand today. The EPA estimates that phasing down HFCs globally can avoid 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century—a large feat with real-world benefits to every community. However, using alternative coolants in new appliances is only half of the potential benefits, as a focus on proper refrigerant disposal is critical to maximizing success.

HFCs became widely used after researchers in the 1970s discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the main refrigerants used at the time, were causing a hole in the ozone layer and leading to more people getting skin cancer as a result. In a 1987 response, nations around the world created The Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to phase out the production and use of ozone-depleting substances like CFCs. Substituting HFCs for CFCs helped heal the ozone layer, but still warmed the planet. Although HFCs and other fluorinated gases cause “only” about 2 percent of Earth’s current warming, each molecule of HFC can trap between 1,000 to 9,000 times more heat than a molecule of CO2. In short, a little bit has a big impact.

The challenge continues to grow. As temperatures warm and more of the world’s population accumulates additional wealth, demand for cooling increases. There are currently 3.6 billion cooling appliances in use today, and that number is increasing at a rate of 10 devices per second. Energy demand for powering these appliances has increased three-fold since 1990 and is projected to double again by 2040.

The good news: Alternative, climate-friendly coolants already exist and the transition to using them is already underway. In 2016, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol created a legally binding agreement to phase down the production and use of HFCs, with developed countries committing to an 85 percent reduction between 2019 and 2036.

Despite the U.S. failing to ratify the amendment, many American manufacturers endorsed it and began phasing out HFCs to stay competitive in the global market. The American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM), enacted in December 2020 as part of a COVID-19 relief package, gave the EPA new authority to phase down HFCs in accordance with the Kigali Amendment. The U.S and China indicated in April that they will join the more than 120 nations and island states that have already signed amendment. Meeting target reductions is certainly within reach—the European Union is on track to phase down HFCs by 2030. Changes in the U.S. will accelerate the global shift through our manufacturing and imports of cooling appliances. 

This new EPA rule puts us on a path to reduce damage caused by future appliances. But what about those 3.6 billion cooling devices that are currently in use? Or the countless more that are in salvage yards? Building a cleaner tomorrow is great, but we can’t move forward without taking care of today’s mess.

Coupling the next generation of refrigerants with proper disposal and high-efficiency appliances will further advance climate benefits. In the U.S., 16 million refrigerators, freezers, window air conditioners and dehumidifiers are thrown out each year, yet only a little more than 600,000 were properly discarded through the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program.

Project Drawdown estimates that removing or destroying the coolants in these appliances could more than double the impact of using alternative coolants in new appliances. Groups like Tradewater show that a market can be created for eliminating (by collecting and incinerating) the emissions in discarded appliances.

Further, additional gains are possible by incentivizing high efficiency air conditioners. High-efficiency appliances are available today and there are promising new options in the near future. The Global Cooling Prize recently awarded two residential-scale air conditioner prototypes that offer five times lower impact than the standard ones used today.

This policy change will make it easier for people to purchase appliances that use alternative coolants. One of the best things we as individuals can do to further reduce our energy used for cooling is to purchase Energy Star-rated appliances, using smart thermostats and insulating our homes. This carries a cost not every renter or homeowner can bear, but it’s important to keep in mind when changes can be made. Perhaps most important, proper disposal of old cooling appliances through the Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) Program will ensure that HFCs are captured or destroyed and don’t leak into the atmosphere.

Although systemic and equitable change is needed across all sectors to address the climate crisis, targeted policies like this one are necessary and will have an immediate, outsized impact. Destroying existing HFCs — the current mess we can’t avoid — and using more efficient appliances will transform this rule from good to great in a moment where big climate wins deserve fast action.

Paul West is an ecologist exploring science-based solutions to help people and nature thrive on a warming planet. He is the director of Special Projects at Project Drawdown and a researcher at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter: @coolfireecology.

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Profile  |  January 24, 2023
Drawdown Science team member Yusuf Jameel
Drawdown Science Profile: Yusuf Jameel
This article is the third in a series introducing the members of Project Drawdown’s new science team. Yusuf Jameel joined Project Drawdown in 2021 as a research manager for Drawdown Lift. In January 2023 he transitioned to the Drawdown Science team as associate scientist, data science. A multidisciplinary scientist with experience in water resources, public health, data analytics, and science communication, he’s passionate about finding solutions to climate change and bridging the gap between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Yusuf obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Utah. Please welcome Yusuf as he shares his thoughts on growing up on the banks of the Ganges River, enhancing human well-being through the adoption of climate solutions, porcupine hair, and more. Q: When people ask you what you do with Project Drawdown, what do you tell them?  A. As a member of the science team, I work on climate solutions using my experience in data analysis, especially on solutions that also address the food–energy–water nexus. I also work on translating the science in a way that makes it widely accessible.  Q: Of all of the things you could be doing, why did you choose to join Project Drawdown?   A: Project Drawdown is on a mission to actually address the biggest problem the world is facing today, climate change. I was really impressed by the book. It was the first to lay out that yes, we can address climate change—it's not just about gloom and doom, it’s also about opportunity. Project Drawdown addresses climate in a way that’s multidimensional, promotes the best science, addresses the different audiences, and passes the mic. That really motivates me. Q: What do you consider some of the biggest obstacles to implementing and scaling up climate solutions?  A: First is unlocking the finance to fund climate solutions globally. We need capital from the private sector, from banks divesting from fossil fuels, and we need to invest in green solutions. Another challenge is politics. We need to think more altruistically. This is a global challenge requiring everyone to join hands, yet it has not been the case so far. The good news is, public perception is changing. Hopefully politics will change, and more capital will be funneled into climate solutions. Q: OK, time for a break. What’s your favorite food? A: I would go with my comfort food, and that’s biryani. It’s a big tradition in South Asian countries, and if you ask anyone in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, biryani is probably one of the top dishes. It’s not the healthiest dish, but it’s just so comforting.  Q: I’m sure you have many, but can you tell us about one superpower you bring to this job? A: I’m a jack of all trades. Whether it’s high-level thinking, brainstorming ideas, or actually doing the work, I’m comfortable doing it all. I’m also adaptable. If a situation requires me to step up and take the lead I can, or I can step back and follow.  Q: What's a childhood experience that relates to the work you're doing today?  A: I grew up on the banks of the River Ganges. Every now and then there would be flooding. As a result, many people would go through an annual cycle of losing crops and be entrenched in a cycle of poverty, unable to get out. This had a profound effect on me. When I started reading about climate change and seeing flooding events become more and more intense, I recognized the need to address climate and development holistically.  Q: What’s your favorite Drawdown Solution?  A: There are so many of them! I really like Distributed Solar Photovoltaics and Reduced Food Waste, but my favorite is Clean Cooking. I think that solution can revolutionize the lives of billions of people in the world, especially young girls. It not only addresses climate but also vastly improves health, addresses gender equality, and opens up economic opportunities. If we can implement clean cooking and distributed solar, we’ll see huge changes in the lives of billions of people globally.  Q: Time for another break. If you were a nonhuman animal, what animal would you be?  A: As a kid I had short hair that was like vertical hair, as if I had had an electric shock. So many of my friends called me Porcupine. People  would rub my hair all the time as it felt like velvet. Now I keep my hair long.  Q: What gives you hope?  A: I derive my hope from two things. First, we’re rapidly advancing technology—a lot of people from across the world are putting their effort into finding and implementing the best and most important solutions to address climate change. Second,  when I was at COP27, I saw that young people are really leading the movement. That gives me hope that we can do meaningful work on this very important but challenging issue. Q: Anything else you’d like to share?  A: I like nature. I especially like mountains. This is something I realized very late in life, maybe because I grew up in cities with very little nature around. When I moved to Utah, I started going to the mountains. I realized how peaceful and how nice it is, and I can’t not talk about it.  As human societies are getting more urbanized,  a lot of us, especially young people who live in large metropolises, are cut off from nature. And I hope they reconnect with nature. We need to appreciate nature and biodiversity much more than we do. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back. We need to love it, respect it, and protect it.
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