Rabe provides three lessons from successful HFC regulations

March 17, 2022

Regulation of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), “an ultra-potent class of greenhouse chemicals widely used in refrigeration,” has seen bipartisan success in Congress and internationally. Could the framework it laid out be used to regulate other greenhouse gases, such as methane, black carbon, or carbon dioxide?

In a recent article for the Milken Institute Review titled “When U.S. Climate Policy Works: Lessons from Regulating Short-Lived Emissions,” Barry Rabe, J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy, investigates that question. 

Rabe reflects on the history of HFCs, starting with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which was created in 1987. The Montreal Protocol aimed to protect the ozone layer by decreasing the use of CFCs and HCFC, both chemical coolants. But, the protocol resulted in HFCs, which are helpful to the ozone layer but still harmful to the climate as intensive warming forces in the short-term..

So, in 2016, the Kigali Amendment was proposed to add HFCs to the Montreal Protocol’s list of controlled substances. The amendment faced significant opposition in the U.S. though.

“In the United States, however, earlier Obama administration efforts to devise regulations for HFCs through the Clean Air Act met federal court resistance,” Rabe writes. “And the Trump administration made no secret of its disdain for Kigali or any other international environmental accord.”

To bypass this resistance the executive branch faces, Congress passed the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020 (AIM), which created a timeline consistent with the amendment to phase down HFC use. The Biden administration took the opportunity to enforce this new environmental legislation, developing guides and a task force for implementation.

“In short, the American political system worked in this instance, placing the nation on a path to decisively address this corner of the climate challenge,” Rabe concludes. “Sadly, this display of harmony shows no sign of translating into a comprehensive model for containing other greenhouse gases.”

Nevertheless, Rabe proposes three lessons to be learned from the successful environmental action.

“First, the emergence of technically and economically viable alternatives to HFCs made rapid transition both feasible and politically appealing,” he explains. “It also divided industry interest groups, preventing a united front in favor of the status quo.”

Another lesson is the impact that states can have on Congress, by using “the back door of federalism” and passing their own legislation rather than waiting for federal legislation to be implemented.  This provided models for federal consideration and pressure to avoid a patchwork of varied state policies through creation of a unified national standard.

Finally, the states were not alone in pressuring Congress, Rabe explains. American firms, worried about losing access to foreign markets, and other nations put pressure on the U.S. government to adopt the regulations. 

Although the Kigali Amendment has not yet been ratified, these three lessons may aid policymakers in strategizing to pass environmental policy, such as methane regulations. 

“The politics of methane containment are changing in ways unthinkable just a few years ago,” Rabe argues. “The technology needed to monitor releases has steadily advanced, demonstrating with growing precision that industry performance on methane varies markedly. And firms within the industry are increasingly divided over whether to address methane emissions as a priority or just to treat the issue as an annoyance to be deferred as long as possible. In some important respects, then, the political ice for methane seems to be cracking, albeit at a considerably slower pace than with HFCs.”

Read the entirety of Rabe’s piece, “When U.S. Climate Policy Works: Lessons from Regulating Short-Lived Emissions,” in the Milken Institute Review.