barry rabe is a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His article is adapted from this post in the Brookings FixGov blog.
Published September 15, 2021
Congress began debating policy options for managing climate change more than three decades ago. But its first legislative initiative that could be labeled a comprehensive strategy for containing a greenhouse gas didn’t emerge until last December. This was hardly a moment of bipartisan conviviality, to say the least. Yet it did produce an historic agreement — and with broad support from both parties — to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), an ultra-potent class of greenhouse gases used in refrigeration.
Just who managed that — and how? Was it a fluke, or a serendipity that could lead the way to accords for other greenhouse gases including methane, black carbon (aka soot) and, of course, carbon dioxide?
Tangled Webs Woven
Ironically, the rapid development and worldwide deployment of HFCs in air conditioning and refrigerators played an essential role in addressing a pressing environmental problem — slowing the depletion of the protective atmospheric ozone layer caused by then widely used chemical coolants called CFCs. Indeed, the substitution proved a policy home run, enabling the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987) to become a model of effective international environmental governance.
HFCs aren’t fairy dust, however. They also contribute to ozone depletion, albeit with far less impact than the CFCs they replaced. As is true for CFCs, they constitute a formidable “short-lived” climate pollutant. Much like methane and black carbon, their impact is particularly intensive during decades immediately following release into the atmosphere, making their containment a potentially attractive political option for a global polity badly in need of a quick victory in the struggle to slow climate change.
The Montreal Protocol’s ongoing review process turned to HFCs more than a decade ago, culminating in the 2016 Kigali Amendment. This added HFCs to its list of controlled substances and specified a phase-down process that began in 2019 for 120 participating nations. Full Kigali implementation is expected to reduce 21st-century global warming one-half degree (Celsius) below average temperatures expected under continued HFC use.
In the United States, however, earlier Obama administration efforts to devise regulations for HFCs through the Clean Air Act met federal court resistance. And the Trump administration made no secret of its disdain for Kigali or any other international environmental accord.
Hence the relief last year when Congress passed the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM) embedded within a legislative package including $900 billion for pandemic relief. It outlines a transition for an 85 percent phase-down of both HFC production and consumption by the mid-2030s and replacement with alternatives, a timeline consistent with Kigali targets. The Biden EPA has seized on this rare arrival of new environmental legislation with prompt issuance of a proposed enabling rule with exceptions for politically or technically sensitive items including medical inhalers, bear-deterrent spray and aviation fire suppressants. It is also exploring complementary strategies such as inspecting for leaks, reclaiming HFCs from discarded appliances and accelerated transition to HFC alternatives, provided the technology advances faster than anticipated.
In short, the system worked, placing the United States on a path to address this slice of the climate challenge. Most notably, the AIM Act passed with bipartisan support despite its timing amid post-election brawling. Legislators ranging from Louisiana Republican John Kennedy to Delaware Democrat Tom Carper justifiably claimed credit on passage.
One Step Forward …
Sadly, this display of harmony shows no sign of translating into a comprehensive model for containing other greenhouse gases. But three key factors propelled this rare success, potentially offering some lessons for conquering other climate villains — in particular, containing other short-lived emissions that pack an immediate wallop but break down with time.
First, the emergence of technically and economically viable alternatives to HFCs made rapid transition both feasible and politically appealing. It also divided industry interest groups. Boeing and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers lobbied against the legislation. But they were countered by a mix of trade associations and companies including the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, Honeywell and Chemours (a chemical company spun off from DuPont in 2015) which embraced rapid transition. Broader industry groups, notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ultimately came on board as well.
Second, some states put pressure on Congress by not waiting for federal legislation to limit HFC emissions. The U.S. Climate Alliance emerged in 2017, offering states a rallying ground to counter President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate. The Alliance prioritized short-lived climate pollutants such as HFCs and methane, highlighting emerging independent state policy models. California played an early role, passing its own legislation in 2018 legislation to reduce HFC releases and providing for funds collected through the state’s carbon emissions cap-and-trade auctions to speed transition to alternative coolants. Ultimately, nine states adopted new HFC legislation between 2018 and 2020, while proposals were pending in six others when Congress approved the AIM Act.
Individual state initiatives varied, triggering industry concerns about navigating a patchwork of rules, and that concern nearly scuttled the federal legislation. Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso sought federal preemption of state policies, whereas many Democrats championed an ongoing state role that would allow greener states to push the envelope. Divides were ultimately reconciled through a balancing act that restricts states initially but allows longer-term divergence.
This compromise has strong parallels to the way federalism concerns were managed in 2016 when Congress passed the Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, one of the few major federal environmental laws adopted in the past three decades. In both cases, state initiatives provided models for federal law while prodding Congress to act.
Third, the states’ push was complemented by an international pull as Kigali implementation ensued and some nations accelerated their transitions. Kigali raised the specter of ever-declining global HFC use alongside steady decline of future American export options for HFC-laden products.
There are good reasons to believe that American industry will not drag its feet on HFC containment — China’s recent decision to ratify Kigali underscores ever-shrinking market access for non-complying American exports.
Foreigners to the Rescue
Canada, for example, launched transition plans a year before its 2017 Kigali ratification. It committed to reduce HFC consumption by 10 percent in 2019 and to pursue deeper cuts across the decade, while moving toward a ban on any HFC-related trade with nations that had not ratified by 2033. Europe moved even more aggressively, with Denmark, Norway and Spain adopting supplemental HFC taxes to further accelerate the transition. And their sense of urgency has translated into private action: more than 26,000 EU supermarkets had adopted lower-impact refrigerants by 2020, as opposed to only 600 in the United States.
There are good reasons to believe that American industry will not drag its feet on HFC containment — China’s recent decision to ratify Kigali underscores ever-shrinking market access for non-complying American exports. In any event, Congress concluded that the global trend was clear and chose not to risk possible loss of key market access. Legislative supporters from both parties highlighted anticipated trade and job gains through AIM Act passage.
The struggle to formally adopt the Kigali protocols is not quite won, however. Despite its new legislation, the United States could still lose international market access if Congress fails to come up with the required two-thirds super-majority to ratify Kigali as a treaty. This unfortunate outcome would not be the first time that the nation squandered an early lead in developing climate-friendly technologies such as solar energy.
Auguries from initial months of the current Congress suggest that the AIM Act remains an anomaly rather than a model. Most notably, Biden-era efforts to reframe major climate investments as infrastructure face deep partisan divides. And there are no guarantees that slender Democratic majorities in both chambers can hold together to adopt bold legislation bundling hefty green expenditures with clean electricity standards — much less pick up a single Republican vote.
Debate over other short-lived climate pollutants remains largely partisan and divisive, despite potential political upsides in terms of significant near-term climate impacts. For example, cost-effective mitigation options abound for reducing methane releases from oil and gas production. But even efforts to use the Congressional Review Act to restore the relatively modest Obama methane standards for new wells on private land secured just 3 Republican votes in the Senate and 12 members in the House.
There’s still a glimmer of hope here, though. The politics of methane containment are changing in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. The technology needed to monitor releases has steadily advanced, demonstrating with growing precision that industry performance on methane varies markedly. And firms within the industry are increasingly divided over whether to address methane emissions as a priority or just to treat the issue as an annoyance to be deferred as long as possible. A small but growing group of states producing oil and gas, most notably Colorado and New Mexico, have changed their stances from Big-Oil-knows-best to a tilt toward performance standards backed up by mandatory use of surveillance technology.
Oil-rich Canada has also broken from the pack, developing federal standards on short-lived climate emissions while also investing heavily in remediation of thousands of abandoned orphan wells scattered across its vast landscape. The EU, for its part, is talking the talk if not yet walking the walk, saying it will establish tough methane standards for future natural gas imports. The timing is interesting because American exporters are seeking to grab market share from the Russians, who are notorious offenders of methane emissions.
Back home, comprehensive methane mitigation bills have been introduced into the 117th Congress. And the Senate has even included a methane emissions fee in its climate infrastructure package. In some important respects, then, the political ice seems to be cracking, albeit at a considerably slower pace than with HFCs.
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As the post-Trump United States joins other nations in preparing for a global climate summit this November in Glasgow, its HFC experience may be celebrated as a rare triumph. As Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz put it immediately following the AIM Act’s passage: “This agreement proves what we know to be true: climate action is good for businesses and innovation. We still have a lot of work to do, but hopefully this sets the stage for the bigger, bolder policies we’ll need to address this planetary crisis.”