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The stimulus bill will phase out ‘super’ greenhouse gases

Goodbye HFCs

A worker on a rooftop installing air conditioning at a hotel on Ocean Drive
A worker on a rooftop installing air conditioning at a hotel.
Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Congress’s $900 billion stimulus bill includes some unexpected climate provisions, including new restrictions that will change the way Americans cool their homes and refrigerate their groceries. The new measures will phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in air conditioning and refrigeration, “super” greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide in their climate impact.

The goal of the provision is to cut the production and import of HFCs by 85 percent by 2035. Under the new provision, that goal will be federal policy and the EPA will have the power to implement new restrictions on manufacturers and importers in order to meet it.

Those measures will bring the US in line with an important climate agreement that it had previously refused to ratify, the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol. With the US on board, the phasing out of HFCs is expected to help the world avoid an additional half a degree Celsius of warming.

Preventing half a degree of warming makes a huge difference for the planet’s future. The world has heated up by just over one degree Celsius since the preindustrial era, which has already led to more devastating hurricanes, wildfires, and heat waves. That’s why policymakers and environmental groups have praised the relief package as one of the most important steps the US has taken to date in combating climate change.

“This is one of the most significant pieces of climate legislation that Congress has passed in its history,” Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the nonprofit World Resources Institute, said in a statement. “Much more needs to be done, but this legislation should put wind in the sails of the incoming Biden-Harris administration.”

Rising temperatures have created a conundrum for city planners concerned about climate change. Recent urban development has happened alongside hotter weather, especially in the Global South — and that’s created greater reliance on air conditioning. More air conditioning has come with more planet-heating HFCs that add to the climate crisis. It’s a vicious cycle.

“The need for more energy efficient air conditioning is so vital to the future of both emissions [and] the reality of what we’re building,” says Ian Hamilton, an associate professor at the University College London, told The Verge last week. “Those lovely, great big glassy towers in hot parts of the world rely so heavily on air conditioning for them to be comfortable, livable.” Hamilton was the lead coordinating author of a recently published UN report that showed that emissions from buildings reached a record high in 2019, in part because of air conditioning units that suck up a lot of power and leak HFCs.

Luckily, there are alternatives to HFCs that aren’t as bad for the planet. The industries that make these alternatives already employ 593,000 US workers, according to Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). The new mandate to phase out HFCs could create 150,000 more jobs in the US and increase American manufacturing by $39 billion over seven years, his office says.

“This is a big deal for our economy and our planet,” Carper said in an emailed statement.

The relief package also includes about $35 billion for clean energy, including $4 billion in research and development funding for wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower. There’s also $6 billion earmarked for emerging technologies that can draw down carbon dioxide emissions.

Additionally, the bill will extend important tax credits for renewables and carbon capture technologies, including a tax credit for power plants and other polluting facilities that find ways to capture and store their planet-heating emissions. There’s similarly an extension of production and investment tax credits for solar and wind. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill today.