Get On Board for the Climate: Can We Stop Worrying Yet?

by Martha Walden for 350 Humboldt


The huge federal spending bill that was passed during the hectic last days of 2020 included an unexpected breakthrough for the environment. The American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act was introduced a little over a year ago, but languished until getting smuggled into the spending bill. It mandates eliminating 85% of the potent global-warming refrigerant chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

HFCs are primarily used in air conditioners, refrigerators and heat pumps. That first application is particularly worrisome as the world heats up, and more and more AC emits more and more greenhouse gases (GHGs). If continuing to rely on HFCs, AC would still cause global warming even if powered by clean energy.

HFCs pack such a huge global-warming punch that I hate to tell you how much. Okay, brace yourself. The four most commonly used refrigerants today trap 1,300 to 3,300 times more heat than carbon dioxide. Appliances commonly leak HFCs. Supermarket refrigerators are the worst offenders with a leak rate of about 25% every year. Heat pumps and air conditioners have a better record. However, all of these appliances are climate disasters if they’re junked without expert protocols to safely recover their refrigerant charge. Unfortunately, that is a common fate. 

That’s why the AIM Act is so important. The US promised in 2016, along with 170 other countries, to reduce the production of HFCs by at least 80% by 2036. Unfortunately, the EPA’s attempt to do just that was legally challenged and bounced around in court for several years. Finally, Congress has put an end to this sorry waffling. 

Source: Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) website.

There is no doubt that the AIM Act is a big step in the right direction. However, there are a few loopholes. In addition to the 15% of HFC baseline production that will continue indefinitely, recycled HFCs will not be regulated. HFCs that are blended with the newest generation of refrigerants will also get a free pass. This newest generation is hydrofluoro-olefins (HFOs) on the whole have significantly lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) than HFCs, but some of the blends range as high as 1288. 

Some HFOs can be used in existing appliances — a big advantage to owners. Refrigerators and some heat pumps can use R1234ze with the rock bottom GWP of zero after minor modifications. It was developed several years ago but hasn’t been deployed because HFCs are much cheaper. 

Meanwhile, many cooling systems in Europe and Japan have been turning to “natural” refrigerants, which is a somewhat funny name for isobutane (propane), carbon dioxide and ammonia. Those GWP scores are 3, 1, and 0. These substances cost much less than HFCs. All things considered, are they the best alternative for new equipment? 

As the sixth largest economy in the world and a climate change leader, California could make a difference through its own legislation by addressing AIM’s loopholes, providing incentives for natural refrigerants, or moving up the deadline. Members of 350 Humboldt plan to meet soon with Senator McGuire’s staff to discuss these possibilities. It would be nice to cross refrigerants off of the worry list once and for all.