What are hydrofluorocarbons?
HFCs are chemicals consisting of hydrogen, fluorine, and carbon. They are commonly used in air conditioning systems, in refrigeration as propellants, and in the production of insulating foams. There are many forms of HFCs. What they have in common is that they are all potent greenhouse gases, with global warming impacts as much as 11,700 times the impact of carbon dioxide. In Washington state, HFCs account for about 4 percent of overall greenhouse gas emissions.
Ironically, HFCs were invented in response to a different environmental crisis: the depletion of the ozone layer. Prior to the 1990s, chemicals known as chlorofluorcarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (CFCs and HCFCs), were widely used in refrigeration and heating and cooling systems. However, CFCs and HCFCs can survive in the atmosphere long enough to reach the ozone layer. Once there, these chemicals break down in sunlight and destroy the atmosphere's protective ozone layer in the process. In 1987, an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol
paved the way toward eliminating this threat.
HFCs quickly became the preferred replacement for CFCs, since they don't harm the ozone layer. It was only later that the global warming impacts of HFCs were recognized. Now, HFCs are rapidly building up in the atmosphere and could wreak havoc on our efforts to address climate change: If left unchecked, HFC emissions will increase to 7 - 19 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
In 2016, 197 countries signed the Kigali Agreement, an amendment to the Montreal Protocol that will reduce the manufacture of HFCs by up to 85 percent by 2045. The United States signed onto the Kigali Agreement, but has not yet ratified it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has removed HFCs from the list of acceptable substitutes for ozone-depleting substances. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled that EPA does not have the regulatory authority to require the replacement of HFCs that are currently in use.
Transitioning away from HFCs in Washington
The 2019 Washington Legislature determined that HFCs pose a significant threat to Washington’s environment and that safer, cost-effective alternatives are available. The Legislature passed Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1112
to transition Washington away from using equipment and products that rely on HFCs.
By Dec. 31, 2019, all manufacturers must notify us of the status of each product class using restricted HFCs. The legislation then sets a series of deadlines to end the use of HFCs in various applications:
- By Jan. 1, 2020 — prohibits HFCs in specific applications, such as propellants, rigid polyurethane and spray foam applications, and supermarket refrigeration systems.
- By Jan. 1, 2021 — prohibits HFCs in new refrigerated food processing and dispensing equipment and compact residential refrigerators.
- By Jan. 1, 2022 — prohibits HFCs in most new residential refrigerators.
- By Jan. 1, 2023 — prohibits new uses of HFCs in cold-storage warehouses and built-in residential refrigerators.
- By Jan. 1, 2024 — prohibits new uses of HFCs in centrifugal and positive displacement industrial chillers.