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The EPA Just Banned the Chemicals That Helped Save the Ozone Layer

Hydrofuorocarbons replaced the chemicals that were depleting the ozone layer, but they are a potent greenhouse gas, up to 10,000 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

by Rob Verger
Jul 3 2015, 7:15pm

Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

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The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized on Thursday a rule that puts new limitations on a group of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. While HFCs make up just a tiny percentage of the gases that cause climate change, they have a disproportionately big impact on global warming.

In fact, according to the EPA, HFCs can be as much as 10,000 times as powerful as carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere, and, without action to restrict them, HFC emissions could almost triple over the next 15 years in the United States.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule was in line with President Obama's efforts to combat climate change, ranging from new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, emissions reduction targets for coal-fired power plants, and bilateral agreements with nations like Brazil and China, which contribute significantly to global warming. 

"This rule will not only reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, but also encourage greater use and development of the next generation of safer HFC alternatives," McCarthy said in a statement. 

US greenhouse gas emissions totaled 6,673 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2013. (Image via EPA)

HFCs make up 90 percent of the fluorinated gas emissions. (Image via EPA)

Hydrofluorocarbons are used in propellants, foams, air conditioners, refrigeration systems, and vending machines. The new EPA rule lists different types of HFCs, their various industrial uses, and indicates at what date using them becomes "unacceptable."

"Tackling HFCs is a no-brainer," said Jason Kowalski, the US policy director of 350.org, which advocates for action on climate change. To restrict them is to go after "low-hanging fruit," he told VICE News, adding that the real issue in the climate change fight is the degree to which the Obama administration is willing to battle the fossil fuel industry.

Honeywell International Inc. manufactures cooling and insulating products impacted by the rule and expressed support for the agency's effort.

"Honeywell applauds the EPA on their landmark action to restrict the use of high-global-warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are among the most potent greenhouse gases in use today," said Ken Gayer, a Honeywell vice president, according to The Hill.

Chemicals in the HFC category have been used as a substitute for another class of chemicals, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which were restricted as a result of the Montreal Protocol because they damage the ozone layer. While HFCs are ozone-friendly, they act as a greenhouse gas.

Restricting HFCs is important because the chemicals have such a high potential to cause global warming, and not only that, in some cases the alternatives are actually more efficient, says Kristin Meek, an associate in the global climate program at the World Resources Institute.

Limiting HFC use is a crucial part of the equation for the United States to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, Meek said.

"I think it's a great first step," she told VICE News. "Talking to experts in the field, I know that there's potential to do even more down the line. But overall, I think the rule that was finalized yesterday really shows that this administration is really serious about reducing their [greenhouse gas] emissions."

Related: The fallout from old nuclear tests might help scientists mark a new geologic age

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger