California Bans Climate-Warming HFCs in New Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration

The state’s move follows a court ruling that EPA lacks authority to regulate the potent greenhouse gases. Industry leaders had supported an HFCs phase-out.

California now prohibits the use of HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, in new refrigeration and cooling systems, including in grocery store refrigerator aisles like this one in San Francisco. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California now prohibits the use of HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, in new refrigeration and cooling systems, including Slurpee machines, frozen yogurt dispensers and grocery store refrigerator cases. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The federal government may be walking back regulations on the climate-warming chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning, but the state of California isn't.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a regulation last week that prohibits the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chemicals that are between 1,000 and 3,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The decision follows a federal court ruling in August 2017 that found the EPA did not have the authority to regulate HFCs.

"The Board's action today preserves the federal limits on the use of these powerful chemicals and refrigerants and provides more certainty to industry," said CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols. "We applaud the actions of many industries, which already have made significant investments in developing and using more climate-friendly alternatives to the high-global warming HFCs."

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HFCs, a type of short-lived climate pollutant, linger in the atmosphere for an average of 14 years, which is significantly less time than CO2, but long enough to become mixed throughout the atmosphere. That means that reductions in HFCs in one area can affect the climate globally, including in the Arctic where climate change is wreaking havoc on natural systems.

An Obama-era rule would have restricted the manufacturing of products containing HFCs, and had the potential to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by as much as the equivalent of 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2025, according to an analysis by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But a federal appeals court sided with foreign manufacturers of HFCs, ruling that the EPA did not have authority to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. This came despite support for the Obama regulations from the Trump administration and two large U.S.-based chemical manufacturers—DuPont spinoff Chemours and Honeywell International, which make alternatives to HFCs.

As use of air conditioning and cooling have increased around the world, HFCs have become the fastest-growing form of climate emissions, with the potential to cause up to a half a degree Celsius of warming by 2100. Scientists, policymakers and chemical manufacturers have been working toward solutions to the problem, including the creation of alternatives that won't have the same impact.

In California, a 2016 law requires the state to reduce HFCs emissions 40 percent below 2013 levels by 2030. The state also has established an approach to reduce other short-lived climate pollutants, like methane and black carbon.

The CARB regulation will lead to an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions reductions annually by 2030. Though it's not enough to reach the mandate imposed by the 2016 law, the board wrote in a release that "this regulation is a good start."

Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said the effort to keep HFCs out of new products may spread beyond California, too. "California's adoption of its own HFCs standards may well inspire other states to do the same, especially since there are readily available substitutes," he said.

The California regulation precludes equipment manufacturers from using prohibited HFCs in foams or new refrigeration equipment, including refrigerated vending machines, supermarket freezer aisles, Slurpee machines and frozen yogurt dispensers. It also requires that they have a disclosure statement that certifies that products use only compliant refrigerants or foam expansion agents.

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