Intelligent Energy

EPA heats up over car air conditioner emissions

EPA heats up over car air conditioner emissions

Posting in Energy

As environmental groups petition to ban some hydrofluorocarbons, the EPA approves a new refrigerant to replace one with a global warming reputation. Could such regulations combat ozone depletion and climate change in one move?

As Congressional efforts to hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory powers for greenhouse gases and other emissions from sessile sources (factories, utilities, power plants) continue, the EPA sets its sights on moving targets: air conditioners within automobiles.

The government agency has agreed to grant a petition championed by a coalition of environmental groups. Led by the NRDC, they are asking it to rescind its approval of a particular hydrofluorocarbon, HFC-134a, from the list of allowable refrigerants for cars and light trucks.

HFC-134a replaced ozone-destroyer CFC-12 in the nineties. Unfortunately, it came with its own environmental baggage. According to the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, one of the petitioners, HFC-134a is a greenhouse gas about 1,400 times as potent as carbon dioxide. The refrigerant can reportedly remain in the atmosphere for more than 13 years.

Many European countries have already nixed the HFC. One alternative is hydrofluoroolefin, HFO-1234yf. The EPA proposed a final rule approving this non-ozone-depleting refrigerant for use yesterday, saying the newer refrigerant's potential to contribute to global warming is 99.7 percent less than its predecessor. Developed by Dupont and Honeywell, HFO-1234yf degrades much quicker. In addition to their global warming impact, criteria for EPA-approved substitutes include their overall safety (toxicity, flammability, exposure risk) and that they don't deplete the ozone layer.

General Motors has already announced it will begin adding HFO-1234yf to the A/Cs within some of its 2013 car models.

Stephen Andersen, who helped organize EPA's Mobile Air Conditioning Climate Protection Partnership, said in a statement that the decision to ban HFC-134a:

...will encourage a rapid market transformation using the best available technology, selected by industry, just in time to allow American automakers to sell their cars everywhere in the world.

Those outside the auto industry may think this is just more regulation, but it is actually government at its best helping industry move in concert on new technology the world needs to prosper.

So adopting some new refrigerants might be a two-for-one for atmospheric health. Last November, the NY Times detailed efforts to use the Montreal Protocol—originally passed to shrink the hole in the ozone layer—to address climate change through the backdoor. The idea is to extend the protocol's regulatory reach to include HFCs. The EPA estimates this could take 88 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the climate equation by 2050. The article reports that the move could possibly slow global warming by a decade.

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Image: Flickr/Rajiv Ashrafi

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Melissa Mahony

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Melissa Mahony has written for Scientific American Mind, Audubon Magazine, Plenty Magazine and LiveScience. Formerly, she was an editor at Wildlife Conservation magazine. She holds degrees from Boston College and New York University's Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure