Half past the dawn of time, when the atmosphere was still young and the planet basically looked like it does today because this was only 50 years ago, it was discovered that many common chemicals were depleting the precious ozone layer. But why do we care if we run out of O3? We still have O2 and some O floating around. Well, as you can see in the following figure, ozone protects Earth from UV light. It is basically a sunscreen layer that absorbs UV rays, which mutates DNA.
In 1990, Title VI was added to the Clean Air Act by Congress in order to protect the ozone layer. This required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to outline and enforce regulations for decreasing the use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once commonly used compounds that we all knew and loved, because CFCs were used in refrigerators and air conditioners. However, when the deleterious effect on the ozone layer by CFCs was elucidated, the U.S. phased-out their use and by 1996 CFCs were largely a thing of the past.
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) began to replace CFCs because HFCs are not ozone depleting and this criteria complied with the Clean Air Act. Now, with the theoretically healthier ozone layer we have nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. According to this article, compared to carbon dioxide, HFCs are 1,000-12,000 times as potent of a greenhouse gas! Although the compounds contribute minimally to U.S. climate pollution (~3% of the U.S. total climate pollution), their use is increasing and they are effective climate polluters. And, with increasing temperatures due to global warming, the EPA predict an increased use of HFCs – more air conditioners and refrigerators leaking their HFCs into the atmosphere. The same article states that fridges lose 10% of their HFCs annually, which is a massive problem considering HFCs’ climate toxicity.
Under the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, the U.S. began to tackle the HFC problem. The plan aims to reduce carbon emissions with the aim of a more stable, healthy environment. The Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program assesses ODS alternatives to determine the environmental and health effects of the substances. It states that HFCs are predicted to triple by 2030 and incentivizes reduction of HFCs in both the private and public sectors. Apparently, Section 612 of the Clean Air Act permitted the EPA to ban HFCs. This gave the EPA authority to ban the use of HFCs without approval by the Senate, and in 2015 the EPA began requiring companies to use alternative gasses as refrigerants instead of HFCs.
Mexichem Fluor and Arkema, two foreign companies that produce HFCs, sued the EPA, stating that there were no grounds for prohibiting the use of chemicals that do not contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Ultimately the court ruled in favor of the companies because Section 612 in fact did not give the EPA legal grounds to prohibit HFC use. And so, the EPA lost its authority to ban HFCs.
The EPA has received some support from industry. Honeywell, a U.S. HFC manufacturer, supported the EPA’s actions, declaring that regulations would decrease their production of the most harmful HFCs by 50% by 2020. Additionally, they would spend $880 million on researching HFC replacements.
While HFCs are horrible for the climate and the EPA’s responsibility is to protect the environment, unlawfully banning substances with self-proclaimed authority is deceitful. I am no lawyer, but in reading Section 612 and various parts of the Clean Air Act, there was no mention of granting regulative authority to the EPA regarding HFC use.
Alternatives to HFCs should be researched and eventually used. Honeywell expressed desire to do so, which is promising. However, it is not necessary that the government ban HFCs in order for the company to diminish harmful HFC use and research alternatives – regardless of legislation Honeywell has the ability to invest an insane $880 million sum into researching alternative refrigerants. A more immediate solution would be to properly install air conditioners and refrigerators because HFCs readily diffuse from leaky fridges and AC units.
Humanity is currently fighting for and against the environment, but I think we are making a valiant conscious effort towards a healthier planet. In the 90’s the EPA created a plan to gradually eradicate CFCs – replacing them for HFCs – and now a similar plan should be made for HFCs, if there are reasonable alternatives. Fighting for the planet frequently gets sidelined by the two parties different political agendas. Contrary to what anyone would expect, the Trump administration actually defended the EPA-HFC regulations and the March 28 executive order did not change the Climate Action Plan’s restriction of HFCs. Trump’s agenda was questioned, some people arguing that he does not care about regulation in the refrigerator or air conditioning industries. With or without the aid or requirement by the government, private industries have the ability to conduct research or operate in an environmentally friendly manner. Honeywell is one example, although I cannot reason with their implied statement that the EPA banning HFCs is necessary for the $880 million research investment.
With the current knowledge of the harmful effects of chemicals on the environment, more should be done to investigate alternative compounds. Luckily, the world took a quick and forceful approach to eradicating ODS. HFCs as a replacement saved the ozone but contributed to heating the planet – ironic considering the compounds are used in cooling systems. Hopefully an alternative exists, or everyone should migrate north and eat nonperishable foods.