Refrigerator Pact Shows Climate Partisanship Can Thaw
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The infrastructure legislation that the Senate is about to pass is said to demonstrate a new bipartisanship in confronting climate change. But this is not the first such instance. A little-noticed provision of a law passed last year demonstrated the same two-party understanding. It involves the very exciting topic of refrigerants.
You may remember from high school physics that refrigerators require special coolants with a low boiling point — lower than the desired temperature of the refrigerated area. The refrigeration cycle begins as liquid coolant is pumped through the refrigerator. As it evaporates, it absorbs heat and cools the chamber (just as the evaporation of sweat from your brow absorbs heat and cools your face). Then the coolant, in gas form, is pumped to the back of the refrigerator where it is compressed. Under high pressure, it condenses back into a liquid and dumps heat. The liquid then passes through a nozzle to reduce its pressure and cool it further, and the cycle begins anew.
This process has attracted some high-powered brains over the years. An excellent new book on thermodynamics, Einstein’s Fridge: How the Difference between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe, describes Albert Einstein’s focus on refrigerators in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back then, refrigerators used as coolants toxic chemicals such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide or methyl chloride, which worked fine — unless the coolants leaked. In 1926, Einstein, having read about several children in Berlin dying from fumes that had escaped from the family refrigerator, set about trying to improve the design. He teamed up with the physicist Leo Szilard, and the formidable intellectual duo took on this challenge.
Einstein and Szilard made significant progress toward formulating less toxic refrigeration options — demonstrating a practical and commercial side of Einstein that seems incompatible with his popular image today. But then General Motors invented Freon, which rapidly came to dominate the coolant market. Einstein and Szilard moved on.
Although Freon was much safer than its predecessors, it had an unexpected and quite undesirable side effect: It did substantial damage to the UV-protective ozone layer. This is why, in the Montreal Protocol of 1987, more than 200 countries agreed to phase it out. In place of Freon, newer refrigerators have used hydrofluorocarbons such as R-410A or R-404A.
The problem with these coolants is that they have significant medium-term global warming potential. R-410A, for example, has more than 2,000 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. As a result, some estimates suggest that refrigeration and air conditioning are responsible for as much as 5% to 10% of global emissions. Other estimates are lower, but the point holds that the refrigerants that have replaced Freon raise the risk of climate change.
A bipartisan majority in Congress seemed to recognize this in 2020, when it passed the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act as part of the $900 billion pandemic relief legislation. The law phases out 85% of production and consumption of R-410A and similar coolants by the mid-2030s.
As Barry Rabe explains in a recent Brookings Institution brief, three factors explain why Congress acted. First, technical alternatives to coolants like R-410A were already available. Second, state governments had started to act on their own, causing some Republican policy makers (including U.S. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming) to favor federal preemption over a patchwork of state regulations. Finally, other countries had acted. Many European countries imposed special taxes to speed the transition to new coolants. “Congress concluded that the global trend was evident and chose not to risk possible loss of key market access,” Rabe said.
Going forward, addressing climate change will require many more such steps — rather than one big change. And for many of them, bipartisan action will again be possible. The key is to take advantage of, and applaud, such opportunities when they present themselves. But we should not be pollyanaish about how far bipartisanship will extend. Given the scale and scope of climate risks, policy makers will also need to take bold action in the absence of bipartisan support.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Peter R. Orszag is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the chief executive officer of financial advisory at Lazard. He was director of the Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, and director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2007 to 2008.
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