Biden Administration Makes First Major Move to Regulate Greenhouse Gases
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a regulation on Thursday to sharply reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, which are widely used in air-conditioning and refrigeration.,
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday finalized its first major regulation to directly limit greenhouse gases, part of an effort to show America’s progress on global warming before a crucial climate summit in Glasgow in November.
The measure would curb the production and use of potent planet-warming chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used in air-conditioners and refrigerators. Without the new regulation, President Biden would be in danger of arriving at the United Nations summit in Glasgow with few concrete emissions-reducing measures to back up his calls for global action against climate change.
Mr. Biden has vowed to cut United States emissions 50 percent to 52 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade. But legislation that includes policies to cut carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the most prevalent greenhouse gas and the most politically difficult to address, faces uncertain prospects in a sharply divided Congress.
“The outlook for meaningful broad-based climate legislation is not very good,” said Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard. He said that makes regulatory actions to curb HFCs and methane, another potent greenhouse gas, “vastly more important.”
The new Environmental Protection Agency rule, which goes into effect next month, puts into effect legislation that Congress approved under President Donald J. Trump. Unlike efforts to curb fossil fuels, plans to reduce HFCs have won broad support from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as industry groups and environmental organizations.
The regulation would reduce HFCs by 85 percent over the next 15 years. According to the White House, that will be the equivalent of eliminating 4.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050, or about three years’ worth of climate pollution from the electricity sector.
Under the new rule, the E.P.A. will reduce the production and use of HFCs incrementally, starting with a 10 percent reduction next year. The White House also announced an $8 million investment over the next five years to encourage the use of alternative chemicals and to bolster enforcement efforts to crack down on the illegal production and importation of HFCs.
“Cutting these climate super pollutants protects our environment, strengthens our economy, and demonstrates that America is back when it comes to leading the world in addressing climate change,” Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.
Industry executives said they had put aside their typical distaste for government rules to support the measure because it would help domestic manufacturers. With other countries moving away from HFCs, many described the rule as protecting the $206-billion-a-year industry by helping to put all manufacturers on a level playing field and helping support alternatives.
“This allows us to make a technology transition that is complicated,” said Kevin Fay, executive director for the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, an industry organization.
Mr. Fay added that companies were particularly relieved to see tough enforcement measures, saying that “it signals to the bad actors that they’re going to have a tough time getting into the market because we’re going to be looking for them.”
Several industry leaders said they had been told by the White House that Mr. Biden intended to send the Kigali agreement, a 2016 accord to phase out HFCs that was signed in the Rwandan capital, to the Senate for ratification soon.
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Stephen R. Yurek, president and chief executive of the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, a trade association, said that adopting the Kigali accord would be important even though the United States was already moving toward adopting it.
“It’s about reputation and credibility,” he said. Formally joining the broader global effort, he said, would be “good for the environment, good for the economy and good for trade.”
Environmental groups described the new regulation as critical to putting the United States on a path to cut emissions 50 percent to 52 percent from 2005 levels by the end of this decade, as Mr. Biden has promised, and to keeping the planet from warming beyond a dangerous threshold.
“Moving from HFCs to climate-friendlier alternatives is an important part of President Biden’s plan to meet the climate crisis,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Senator Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware, said the E.P.A. rule would create jobs.
“This is a slam dunk, plain and simple,” Mr. Carper said in a statement. “Phasing down HFCs will support American leadership in manufacturing and innovation, bring down global temperatures, strengthen our economy, and help save our planet,” he said.
Among the few critics of the new policy was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that disputes the idea that climate change poses a major threat to the United States. The organization issued a statement saying reducing HFCs would drive up the costs of new refrigerators and air-conditioners as well as the prices of repairing old ones.
Industry officials dispute that, noting that the refrigerant compound represents about 1 percent of the price of the cost of a cooling appliance. Francis Dietz, vice president of public affairs at the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute, also pointed out that manufacturers have years of experience phasing out coolants that have later turned out to be harmful.
Alternatives already are being produced, he said, but until the E.P.A. regulation goes into effect, there is not a large enough market for them in the United States.
“We have been dealing with this idea that it’s going to raise costs forever,” Mr. Dietz said. “We do not agree.”
Many refrigerators and air-conditioners in the United States today still use HFCs, though a growing number of manufacturers have already moved to limit their use and offer new models that use hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs, which are more climate friendly.
At the Glasgow summit, world leaders are expected to announce ambitious new pledges to avert the worst consequences of global warming. The success of the meeting, though, will hinge in large part on what can be achieved in Washington, a fact that puts enormous pressure on the Biden administration.
The United States is currently the second-largest climate polluter, after China, and the largest emitter in historical terms.
Mr. Biden has put in place major initiatives to expand offshore wind power and solar energy. But much of his agenda to force a reduction in emissions hinges on the passage of a $3.5 trillion budget package. A separate infrastructure package also awaiting approval would provide billions of dollars to modernize the country’s power grid so it could handle more renewable energy.
John Kerry, Mr. Biden’s international climate envoy, acknowledged in a recent interview that leaders in other countries openly question America’s credibility on climate change.
“They ask, ‘How do we know America can follow through?'” Mr. Kerry said. He said meeting the U.S. goal without the two pieces of legislation would be “difficult.”