Battling Refrigerators in the War on Climate Change

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A new U.S. government funding bill ushers in two initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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As the year 2020 drew to a close, President Donald J. Trump’s decision to sign a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package dominated media headlines. But a less-publicized government funding bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Trump alongside the controversial pandemic relief package, featured multiple provisions to fight climate change that won bipartisan support.

As part of the $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed with the relief package, lawmakers authorized the largest expenditure on renewable energy research and development since 2009: approximately $35 billion over the next five years. Of that, nearly $4 billion is earmarked for renewable energy research and development from sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower. Another $6.6 billion is dedicated to developing nuclear power technology, and $6 billion will fund research on carbon capture and storage—a growing technology that may help control greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel energy generators.

Significantly, the spending law moves well beyond preexisting tax credits for land-based wind and solar energy, which were also extended in the same law and supported by Republicans in the past. The law also adds the first U.S. tax credit for offshore wind projects and applies to those that began construction in 2017, extending through 2025.

An additional provision in the law requires U.S. manufacturers to phase out using “potent planet-warming” chemicals, which circulate through air conditioners and refrigerators to keep the appliances cool. These chemical coolants, known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), make up only a small percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but they can possess 1,430 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Over the next 15 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to oversee an 85 percent phasedown of HFC production and consumption, although Americans who own older appliances may continue using high-HFC products.

The law’s HFC coolant provision has been touted as one of the most significant steps ever taken by the federal government to combat greenhouse gas emissions. The provision is projected to help prevent the equivalent of emitting 949 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2035. This compares roughly to the amount of emissions projected to result from the Trump Administration’s rollbacks on vehicle emissions standards and methane regulation. Put differently, the coolant provision could reduce annual emissions comparable to removing about 195 million cars from the road or cutting out Germany’s total emissions.

The coolant measure may also realign the United States with international action on climate change, a priority of the incoming Biden Administration. The phasedown schedule mirrors the terms of a 2016 accord signed in Kigali, Rwanda, in which 197 nations agreed to phase out HFCs in favor of less climate-threatening chemicals. The chief U.S. negotiators of the Kigali amendment were John Kerry, former secretary of state, and Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator—both of whom have been appointed as President-Elect Joe Biden’s top White House climate advisors.

But the coolant provision has also garnered support from Republican politicians, as they join the private sector in championing the phaseout of HFCs. For several years, a major air-conditioning, heating, and refrigeration industry group has lobbied U.S. lawmakers to adopt the Kigali amendment, arguing that American companies are already leaders in the technology required to replace HFCs.

Republican politicians may have also noticed that at least seven states have passed laws designed to reduce HFCs, and nine other states have announced their intention to do so, creating a patchwork of regulations that manufacturers may have difficulty navigating. By standardizing industry regulation, a federal coolant phasedown could “save American consumers $3.7 billion over 15 years, increase U.S. manufacturing by almost $39 billion over seven years,” and create 150,000 additional jobs.

Taken together, the several provisions in the latest omnibus funding legislation represent a major step forward for U.S. climate policy. In a political arena often deadlocked over partisan debates, the omnibus spending law has greenlighted some of the most significant renewable energy spending in over a decade.

The only comparable effort in recent memory occurred in 2009, when President Barack Obama signed legislation authorizing $90 billion for renewable energy generation and modernization of the U.S. electricity grid. As a result, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reportedly has referred to the new law as the most significant energy legislation since 2007; in recent years, spending on renewable energy has been limited to tax credits.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the recent omnibus law as “the single biggest victory in the fight against climate change” in more than a decade.

Of course, triumphant statements by Democratic leaders do not necessarily mean that Senate Republicans have turned a corner and are willing to drop their opposition to other climate change policies. Democrats’ and environmentalists’ celebration of the omnibus legislation’s renewable energy and coolant provisions may simply represent an effort to find some good news at the end of a year marked by widespread despair.