When U.S. Climate Policy Works

Lessons from Regulating Short-Lived Emissions
by barry rabe

barry rabe is a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This article is adapted from his post in the Brookings FixGov blog.

Published February 27, 2022


Congress began debating options for managing climate change more than three decades ago, but its first legislative initiative that could be labelled a comprehensive strategy for containing a greenhouse gas didn’t emerge until December 2020. This was hardly a period of bipartisan kumbaya, to say the least. Yet it did produce an agreement, one with broad support from both political parties, to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), an ultra-potent class of greenhouse chemicals widely used in refrigeration.

Was it a fluke? Or a matrix for accords for other greenhouse gases including methane, black carbon (aka soot) — and, of course, carbon dioxide?

The Road from Montreal

Ironically, the rapid development and worldwide deployment of HFCs in air conditioners and refrigerators played an essential role in alleviating a pressing environmental problem — namely, slowing the depletion of the protective atmospheric ozone layer caused by then-widely used chemical coolants called CFCs and HCFCs. Indeed, the substitution proved a policy home run, enabling the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, in 1987, to become a model of effective international environmental governance.

HFCs aren’t fairy dust, however; they constitute a formidable (but short-lived) climate pollutant. Much like methane and black carbon, their impact is particularly intense during the years immediately following release into the atmosphere, making their containment a potentially attractive political option for a global polity badly in need of quick victories in the struggle to slow climate change.

The Montreal Protocol’s ongoing review process turned a gimlet eye on 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 by fully one-half degree (Celsius) below temperatures expected under HFC use-as-usual. 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 when Congress passed the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020 (AIM) embedded within a legislative package funneling $900 billion into pandemic relief. It outlined a transition for an 85 percent phase-down of both HFC production and consumption by the mid-2030s and replacement with far gentler alternatives — a timeline consistent with Kigali targets.

The Biden administration seized upon this rare arrival of new environmental legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency promptly developed a rule to guide implementation and creation of a multi-agency task force to thwart HFC smuggling that has surfaced abroad. It is also exploring complementary strategies in response to petitions from environmental groups and industry, as authorized in the freshly minted legislation.

In short, the American political system worked in this instance, placing the nation on a path to decisively address this corner 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 upon passage.

Europe's 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.
Paving the Way

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 meeting other climate policy challenges — in particular, containing other emissions that pack an immediate wallop but break down fairly quickly in the atmosphere.

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, preventing a united front in favor of the status quo.

Boeing and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, among others, lobbied against the legislation. But they were countered by a mix of trade associations and companies that viewed the legislation as a relatively low cost compromise. These included the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, Honeywell and Chemours (a chemical giant spun off from DuPont in 2015) which embraced rapid transition. Broader industry groups, notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also came on board.

Second, some states put pressure on Congress through the back door of federalism, 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 led the pack, passing its own legislation in 2018 to reduce HFC releases and providing funds collected through the state’s auctions of carbon cap-and-trade allowances 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. Divides over continuing state authority 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 last three decades. In both cases, state initiatives provided models for federal law while prodding business to go along lest it be caught in a regulatory thicket — and ultimately driving Congress to act.

Foreigners to the Rescue

Third, the states’ push was complemented by an international pull as Kigali implementation ensued. Kigali raised the specter of ever-declining global HFC use alongside steady shrinkage of future American exports of HFC-dependent products. American firms eager to lead in a post-HFC world worried about losing access to foreign markets if the U.S. remained an outlier, prompting them to support new federal policy that might cost them money in the short run.

Other nations accelerated transition while the United States dawdled. 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 its phase-down and 10 nations adopted supplemental HFC taxes to further speed 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.

As the United States considers climate steps post-Glasgow, its HFC experience may be celebrated as a rare triumph — assuming Congress completes the journey by ratifying the treaty.

There are good reasons to believe that American industry will not drag its feet on HFC transition: Recent decisions by China and India to ratify Kigali underscore the ever-narrowing market for American exports that don’t comply. In any event, Congress, plainly listening to industry lobbyists, concluded that the global trend was clear and chose not to risk possible loss of market access. Moreover, it helped to be able to add a talking-point sweetener: supporters from both parties highlighted anticipated trade and job gains through AIM Act passage.

Adoption of the Kigali protocols is not yet a done deal, however. Despite the new legislation, the United States could still lose international credibility if the Senate fails to produce the required two-thirds supermajority to ratify Kigali as a treaty. And it didn’t help that the Biden administration took much longer than expected to complete its formal request to the Senate to act.

It remains unclear whether this final hurdle can be cleared, given the bitter partisan displays in the current Congress and a packed legislative agenda before the November elections. Ignoring Kigali would not be the first time that the U.S. has squandered an early lead in developing climate-friendly technologies. Exhibit A: solar energy.

Looking Ahead

Auguries from the first year 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 cornerstones of his Build Back Better initiative face deep partisan divides, despite broader support for an infrastructure package that included some climate-friendly provisions. There are considerable doubts that razor-thin Democratic majorities in both chambers can hold together to support bold legislation addressing carbon emissions — much less pick up a single Republican vote.

Debate over other short-lived climate pollutants remains largely partisan, 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 three Republican votes in the Senate and 12 in the House in 2021, relying for passage on Democrats.

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 already broken from the pack, developing national 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 imports of natural gas. The timing is interesting because American exporters are eager to grab market share from the Russians, who are notoriously indifferent to methane stewardship and appear far more focused on territorial expansion in Europe than elevating environmental performance.

Back home, comprehensive methane mitigation bills have been introduced in Congress for the first time. A methane emissions fee to deter releases passed the House, but appears stalled in the Senate. The EPA, however, is developing a set of advanced methane regulations on its own, and a few additional production states are expanding oversight.

Biden made methane a major focus during the recent Glasgow climate summit, unveiling a Global Methane Pledge that calls for significant reductions during this decade. He has received endorsements from over 100 nations, although virtually none have offered details on how they would honor these pledges. In some important respects, then, the political ice for methane seems to be cracking, albeit at a considerably slower pace than with HFCs.

 • • •

As the United States considers climate steps post-Glasgow, its HFC experience may be celebrated as a rare triumph — assuming Congress completes the journey by ratifying the treaty. As Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz put it: “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.”

main topic: Climate Change
related topics: Policy & Regulation