The AIM Act: Your Questions on U.S. HFC Legislation – Answered
A new year’s gift for our climate came wrapped in the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress at the end of 2020. Among the bill’s several significant climate provisions is the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act, or AIM Act, that enacts a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are potent climate pollutants commonly used as coolants in air conditioners and refrigerators.
We provide answers to some common questions arising after the bill’s passage on what it does to address the climate impacts of HFCs and what to expect next:
What does the bill do in a nutshell?
It gives authority to the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) to regulate HFCs through three key mechanisms:
- An allowance system reducing the permitted amount of HFCs that can be consumed (i.e. produced or imported) in the U.S. by 85% at the end of 2035. This is the main requirement for complying with the Kigali Amendment’s global HFC phase-down agreement. This section also authorizes EPA to accelerate the phase-down starting in 2025, subject to market conditions.
- Prohibitions or restrictions on HFC use by sector or subsector. EPA can now immediately restore Obama era restrictions under the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program that were previously reversed, and go further in banning additional HFCs and HFC blends in refrigeration, air conditioning, and other major uses.
This should include national adoption of California’s recently finalized regulations on supermarkets, and other large refrigeration systems.
- Improve management of refrigerants to “minimize release” including regulations on servicing, repair, disposal, or installation of equipment and reclamation. Though less specific than other parts of the bill, this section gives EPA broad authority to reduce existing emissions from refrigerant leaks during use and at end-of-life.
EPA’s next steps should again go beyond restoring Obama-era regulations, and do more to increase recovery, reclamation, and reuse of refrigerants, which would displace new production and thereby could help accelerate the phase-down, or even make it a phase-out.
Does the U.S. still need to ratify the Kigali Amendment?
Yes! Although the bill brings the U.S in compliance with the Kigali Amendment, it does not constitute formal ratification. U.S. ratification is important to help restore faith in U.S. climate commitments with the international community and encourage other major countries to ratify as well. China and India have already signaled progress toward ratification but would have a stronger incentive to move forward, since nations that have not ratified would in the future be restricted from some trade with countries that have, under the non-party trade provisions of the treaty.
The process requires the President to send a formal ratification instrument to the Senate for advice and consent. With the strong bipartisan support of the AIM Act and regulatory compliance assured by its passage, ratification should be relatively easy for the Biden administration.
Does it prevent state and local governments from regulating HFCs?
Not very much. A few narrow uses specified in the bill are restricted from regulations for a period of five years. These uses constitute only a tiny fraction of HFC use. They include inhalers for asthma, aerosol propellants for defense sprays, pre-formed foams for marine and trailer use, and military and aerospace fire suppression. They don’t include any refrigeration or air conditioning applications, which make up the vast majority of HFC use and emissions and are the main focus of most state regulations. EPA could in the future designate other “essential uses” for which there are no alternatives, which would be exempt from any state and local regulations, but this is unlikely to ever be needed for most uses with the increasing adoption of climate-friendly refrigerants.
Does it leave out HFC blends?
No. EPA will have authority to phase down HFCs when blended, as many refrigerants are mixtures. The language does say that EPA won’t designate a blend as a ‘regulated substance’ for purposes of phasing down consumption. This is because some refrigerant blends contain other substances not covered by the HFC phase-down. Some blends contain both HFCs and natural refrigerants like CO2 or hydrocarbons, for example, while others contain HFOs (hydrofluoroolefins, or unsaturated HFCs). The bill’s language clearly allows EPA to reduce allowances for HFCs contained in blends, and to ban or restrict the use of HFC blends themselves in sector applications.
Does it do enough to reduce emissions?
It’s a good start, but doesn’t go far enough to ensure we can fully eliminate HFC emissions consistent with science-based targets for reaching zero emissions by mid-century. There’s a lot more work to be done and a lot will hinge on the substance and scope of EPA’s implementing regulations. A strong federal program should involve a formal mechanism for coordination with leading states and provide resources to develop a truly resilient policy framework that will stand the test of time and deliver on our climate goals, no matter what the next elections bring.