This Is Why These States Aren’t So Chill About What’s Inside Air Conditioners

Nearly 2 in 3 Americans cool their homes with central AC, a major source of a climate-warming greenhouse gas that Trump doesn't want to regulate.
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<p>A shopper looks at air conditioners at a store in New York. More states are looking to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are pollutants used as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators.</p>

A shopper looks at air conditioners at a store in New York. More states are looking to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are pollutants used as refrigerants in air conditioners and refrigerators.

Richard Drew/The Associated Press

As summer scorchers draw closer, more Americans will be cranking up their air conditioners, desperate for swaths of cool air.

But the comfort comes with an environmental cost — one a growing number of states are trying to reduce by phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs.

HFCs, which are used as refrigerants in air conditioners, refrigerators and insulating foams, are even worse than carbon dioxide — up to several thousand times worse — in trapping heat in the atmosphere. That makes them a major contributor to climate change.

California led the way last year when it passed a law limiting HFCs, and Washington state is expected to pass a similar bill this year. The laws place prohibitions on the manufacture and sale of HFCs and mandate the use of cleaner alternatives, with low global warming potential (GWP), which already exist.

Most states are focusing first on large, commercial refrigeration units such as those that cool supermarkets and office buildings.

There are hundreds of examples of HFC-free air-conditioning and refrigeration technologies already available today, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Now lawmakers and industry leaders in states such as Connecticut, Maryland, New York, Vermont and Washington are looking to follow suit.

The states are seeking to fill a regulatory void left by the Trump administration, which for two years has held off on submitting a 2017 international treaty to the Senate for ratification. The Kigali Amendment, as it’s known, has been ratified by more than 60 countries.

Under the amendment, countries commit to cutting down production and consumption of HFCs by more than 80% over the next 30 years.

The Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, a coalition of manufacturers, businesses and trade associations who make and use HFCs, supports the Kigali Amendment.

It’s good for job growth, strengthening U.S. exports and positioning U.S. technology at the forefront of innovation, according to the alliance’s 2018 economic analysis jointly released with the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute. But the group worries that a patchwork of state regulations could make it more difficult for industry to comply.

“Obviously one federal action is better than a bunch of states trying to figure out how they go about doing this,” said Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy. “I think the states are now figuring out that it’s pretty complicated.”

The state moves follow a federal court decision in 2017 to overturn the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to limit the HFC use, on the basis that the Clean Air Act does not give the federal government jurisdiction to regulate the greenhouse gas.

“There’s no doubt that was a blip in progress,” said Alex Hillbrand, an HFC expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “But now we’ve got a lot of states leading the way, a model that will hold us over until we’re able to join the amendment properly ... It’s a rare area of cooperation.”

Climate costs

At the current rate, the Earth will warm by 3.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and by as much as 1.5 degrees between 2030 and 2052, according to a 2018 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Exceeding 1.5 degrees essentially means more severe weather extremes, including blistering heatwaves.

The demand for air conditioners is rising dramatically as the world grows warmer, particularly in developing countries.

The world’s stock of air conditioners is projected to skyrocket from 1.6 billion units to 5.6 billion by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organization that focuses on clean energy.

The global stock of cooling devices jumps even higher, even faster — to 6 billion units in a decade — when factoring in refrigerators and other systems that keep things like food and vaccines cold.

In the United States, nearly 80 million households, or 64%, used a central air-conditioning system in 2015, an increase of 5 percentage points since 2005.

Air conditioners contribute to climate change in two ways: First, the power stations that produce the electricity needed to run them generate about 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to the International Energy Agency. Second, when air-conditioning equipment commonly leak HFCs, either in use or on disposal, these gases escape with a potency up to 9,000 times higher than carbon dioxide.

Improving refrigerants used in air conditioners could do more than anything else to reduce greenhouse gases, according to Project Drawdown, a think tank that created a top 100 list of the most effective ways to combat climate change using existing solutions.

“I hope it’s a matter of when [national regulation is put in place], and not if,” said David Abel, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who focuses on energy systems, air pollution and public health. “It really has to be, if we’re going to avoid some of this really catastrophic damage.”

Gaining ‘momentum’

California, which saw HFC emissions double between 2005 and 2015, became the first state to pass a law regulating them. The California Air Resources Board approved a strategy last year, which went into effect this year.

California has proposed that, starting in 2023, manufacturers will no longer be able to sell refrigerants with a global warming potential (GWP) of 750 or greater in new air-conditioning systems containing two or more pounds of refrigerant.

“This is a big deal,” Hillbrand said. “And it’s on a pretty rapid timeline.”

As it’s written in legislation, the state is required to reduce HFC emissions 40% below 2013 levels by 2030.

California also envisions an incentive program for low-GWP refrigeration, intended for large refrigeration systems used by end users like supermarkets — similar to a cash-for-clunkers program — in which people could dispose of an older refrigerator or air conditioner for one that’s better for the planet.

The California incentive program is on hold, however, as the legislature has not allocated funding.

Other states are following similar models. This year, the Vermont Senate introduced a measure to regulate HFCs, which has since been referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife.

In September, Maryland announced its plan to phase out HFCs, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation outlined its proposal for an HFC phasedown.

The New York plan establishes phaseouts in food refrigeration equipment in supermarket systems by 2020, household refrigerators and freezers by 2021, and air-conditioning equipment by 2024.

Following their lead, then Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, last year ordered the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to create HFC phaseout regulations based on those set out by California’s regulations.

A similar bill in Washington state is “95% of the way through the legislative process,” said Stuart Clark, the air quality program manager of the Washington State Department of Ecology. The idea is to “get the momentum here with states and hope that the U.S. puts this in effect across the whole country, because that’s how it would be the most effective, and more powerful.”

In June last year, more than a dozen Republican U.S. senators, led by John Kennedy of Louisiana and Susan Collins of Maine, wrote to President Donald Trump urging he submit the treaty amendment for the Senate’s approval.

The senators said the Kigali Amendment would boost manufacturing jobs by 33,000 and exports by billions of dollars. They cited research from the joint trade-group report, released in April 2018.

In July, the president received another letter — this time from 20 national and state conservative groups — urging him to reject the agreement.

In the letter, groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and Heritage Action argued that the agreement “would impose restrictions on production of the affordable refrigerants currently used in most types of air conditioning and refrigeration units,” and result in “higher costs for households, motorists, and businesses that rely on air conditioning and refrigeration.”

A case for new American tech

The popular use of HFCs sprouted from the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which phased out the use of ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.

Scientists say swapping CFCs for HFCs did in fact help solve one problem — a gaping hole in the ozone layer — but inadvertently exacerbated another no one’s been able to solve: climate change.

“HFCs was a bit of a Frankenstein,” said Bill Drumheller, a climate policy analyst with the Washington State Department of Ecology. “HFCs were literally wholly new things that were made specifically to replace CFCs. But it’s sort of your classic technology story.”

That’s what makes the transition from HFCs most appealing to states: the opportunity to innovate.

“There’s just a huge potential for American companies to be the ones that are providing the technology solutions that the rest of the world is transitioning to,” said Julie Cerqueira, executive director of the U.S. Climate Alliance.

Her group, a bipartisan coalition of governors, is working to reduce greenhouse gases based on goals laid out by the Paris Agreement, a 2015 deal in which countries agreed to individual contributions to reduce climate change.

“The question is: Are we creating the right environment for our businesses to be able to thrive and be the ones that deploy those solutions?”

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