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Make Air Conditioners Suck Less

The Biden EPA is right to cut hydrofluorocarbon emissions. But sustainable air conditioning requires more than just better window units.

A rusty air conditioner sits in a window.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The tell-tale signs of spring are upon us. I’m not talking about the explosion of tulips, or the clouds of pollen, or even that odd feeling the sun causes when it hits your skin—warmth, is it? No, the true signal of spring’s arrival is a feeling deeper than any of those obvious reminders. It’s standing up too fast and hearing the pop in your knee, or lifting a package and triggering a twinge in your lower back, and remembering that a far greater ordeal is ahead of you: The time has come to lug that 70-pound chunk of steel out of storage and reintroduce your home to the wonders, and horrors, of the air conditioner. And this year, pondering the damage the units might wreak upon our bodies as we wedge them into window frames, it’s harder than ever not to wonder about the damage they’ve been doing to our planet.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced the latest step in the Biden administration’s plan to tackle emissions: cutting hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, by 85 percent come 2036. The initiative arrives just two weeks after both President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled their support for the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which focuses on the reduction of non–carbon dioxide emissions. The United States helped broker and even signed the agreement in 2016, but the measure was not ratified by the Senate—something Biden pledged to fix on the campaign trail.

The EPA will use the rest of the year to study and set a new, more stringent standard for the production, importation, and use of HFCs—man-made compounds widely used in refrigerators, insulation, and air conditioners. Then, in 2022 and 2023, the agency will determine who will receive allowances for HFCs, after which the EPA will create and roll out the resulting compliance and enforcement regulatory framework to ensure companies and developers adapt. The EPA’s plan is also a response to items included in the December 2020 relief legislation, calling on the agency to form a plan for HFC mitigation.

Tackling refrigeration is a huge part of addressing climate change. HFCs are more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, thanks to their remarkable ability to trap and store heat. They currently make up roughly 1 percent of overall emissions, but rates have been steadily increasing, with the growth rate hovering around 8 percent in 2019. Ideally, this new measure would be the first of many—unlike the last time governments tried to reform air conditioning, in the 1980s, when a different refrigerating chemical was banned and then little further action was taken for decades.

Over the past century, as temperatures have steadily risen, air conditioning has gone from a luxury to a norm to a necessity in certain pockets of the country. The paradox, of course, was that air conditioners were contributing to the warming of the planet, necessitating their widespread use. In the mid-twentieth century, air conditioners and other products that now use HFCs were instead using chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were damaging the ozone layer, leading to a ban with the signing of the Montreal Protocol treaty in 1987.

Archival writings about what pre-A.C. life looked like, particularly in densely packed urban areas, offer a depressing counterfactual. Here’s Arthur Miller on The Before Times in The New Yorker:

People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.

Even through the nights, the pall of heat never broke. With a couple of other kids, I would go across 110th to the Park and walk among the hundreds of people, singles and families, who slept on the grass, next to their big alarm clocks, which set up a mild cacophony of the seconds passing, one clock’s ticks syncopating with another’s.

That’s not a great situation, and as deadly summer power outages now show each year, it wasn’t a safe situation, either—the young, the elderly, and those in other at-risk demographics can die in extreme heat.

Now, with A.C. units in 90 percent of American homes and demand expected to jump 59 percent by 2050, the goal, at least at the outset, is not to remove air conditioning from the field, especially given the increasing volatility of climates that in some cases make them a lifesaving technology. Rather, what is needed—what companies like Honeywell and Chemours have known we’d need since the turn of the twenty-first century—is the introduction and adoption of an HFC alternative, along (hopefully) with progress in terms of energy efficiency. That means not just finding a new set of refrigerants but also replacing the current stock of window units with updated models that reduce emissions, and adopting building codes in the appropriate regions that encourage the installation of central-air units.

Speaking with NPR following the passage of the HFC-specific items in the December pandemic package, Samantha Slater of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute relayed that the cooling industry is ready to adopt the new regulations. The sell for companies is fairly straightforward, as they will get to boast about the jobs created from the development, manufacture, and installation of an HFC alternative.

There are no easy answers, currently, for replacing HFCs, as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition found in a global study evaluating possible alternatives (including propane, isobutane, ammonia, difluoromethane, and carbon dioxide). For instance, difluoromethane does not appear to contribute to emissions as badly as HFCs, but its greenhouse warming power is also too high for it to replace HFCs in places with firm regulations like the European Union.

The focus on HFCs, and not on the cooling industry itself, is why the federal government has been able to take bipartisan action and why the industry has voiced its support for forward-thinking legislation. This is a fairly routine step for any emissions-heavy industry’s climate crisis response process. Just as American energy executives shelved coal the minute natural gas could take its place, the cooling industry will be happy to swap out HFCs for a slightly more expensive, marginally more climate-friendly option. Honeywell and Chemours mostly care about retaining their grip over their slice of the market. Legislative and regulatory attention and updates over the next few years will determine whether the EPA’s Monday announcement winds up being a turning point or merely cosmetic.

Accepting that vast swaths of humanity live in climates that demand air conditioning—accepting air conditioning will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future—doesn’t have to mean giving up on limiting air conditioning’s emissions. Various versions of articles tugging at this climate-versus-comfort knot have been written over the past five years, with increasingly horrifying forecasts about how we’re actually cooling ourselves into a mass heatstroke. Speaking with The Guardian in 2019, for example, John Dulac, from the International Energy Agency, said that during a 2018 heat wave in Beijing, half of all the power capacity in the city was being directed toward A.C. “These are ‘oh shit’ moments,” Dulac concluded. And he’s right: A power grid that is increasingly built to support the weight of millions of window units and central air systems trying to keep everyone at a livable temperature, even if HFC emissions are eliminated entirely, is hard to square with sustainability goals. Even more so if the power grid feeding all those HFC-free window units is drawing its energy from the burning of coal, gas, and oil.

All of which goes to show that solving the HFCs problem, while intensely important, has to be one step among many toward curbing carbon emissions. As Sunrise Political Director Evan Weber told my colleague Kate Aronoff, the direction and shape of the Biden administration’s climate plans through its first 100 days have been, “historic, unprecedented, and nowhere near enough.” Phasing out HFCs and making air conditioners more climate-friendly sounds great; creating a society where you don’t have to grimly accept that you’re just upping the temperature on future generations every time you flip a light switch or crank on the A.C. sounds even better.