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Latest Pandemic Relief Contains Includes Important Climate Change Measures


If President Trump does not agree to sign the latest coronavirus relief bill, it could threaten the most significant climate change legislation in over a decade. The package includes tax credit extensions for wind and solar power and more money for research into cleaner forms of energy. But even more significant, NPR's Jeff Brady reports there's a phase-down of heat-trapping gases currently used in refrigerators and air conditioners.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: These gases are called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. They're great in air conditioners and refrigerators, but when they escape into the atmosphere, they're an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. They have more than 1,000 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide. Under the new deal, 85% of these HFCs would phase out over 15 years.

Environmental groups supported the legislation. So did the AC and refrigeration industries. Samantha Slater with the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute says her members see business opportunity in the change.

SAMANTHA SLATER: We want to make the new refrigerants here in the United States, right, and then export them across the world as well.

BRADY: The legislation would fulfill an international agreement to phase out HFCs from the final days of the Obama administration. The U.S. still hasn't ratified what was dubbed the Kigali Amendment, but much of the rest of the world has. That left U.S. companies worried that foreign competitors would dominate their changing industries. With everyone meeting the same phase-down requirement, those companies say they could better compete.

Now, if you don't know much about refrigerants in your home, don't worry. Slater says you wouldn't need to do anything.

SLATER: No one needs to go out and buy a new air conditioner. The air conditioner they have will work until the end of its useful life, and there will be refrigerant available to use for the contractors that come into your home to service that equipment.

BRADY: Same for your refrigerator. Still, for climate change, this would be a big deal. Air conditioning and refrigeration is growing, especially in developing countries. David Doniger with the Natural Resources Defense Council says with the existing HFC refrigerants...

DAVID DONIGER: You would have seen about the equivalent of 70 billion tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere in the form of HFCs between now and 2050.

BRADY: That would have made climate change worse. The question now is whether the U.S. will pass this legislation and join other countries in reducing the use of HFC refrigerants. Doniger says globally, this phase-down will prevent about a half-degree Celsius of global warming. Since the goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to under two degrees, this change is significant. Doniger says there's something else that made him optimistic about the bipartisan deal. Environmental groups and affected industries agree this legislation is important.

DONIGER: It's proof that the climate problem is so real and so serious that the underlying current in industry and in Congress is running towards solutions.

BRADY: Republicans supported this HFC phase-down despite a Trump administration that has been hostile to new climate policies. As President-elect Biden takes office next month with his ambitious climate plan, those involved in this deal hope it will become a model for future efforts and that it will signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. will once again get serious about addressing climate change.

Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.