Make Air Conditioners Suck Less

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 heatwave 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.

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