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WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency moved on Monday to sharply reduce the use and production of powerful greenhouse gases central to refrigeration and air-conditioning, part of the Biden administration’s larger strategy of trying to slow the pace of global warming.
The agency proposed to regulate hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a class of man-made chemicals that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. The proposal is the first significant step the E.P.A. has taken under President Biden to curb climate change.
The move is also the first time the federal government has set national limits on HFCs, which were used to replace ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s but have turned out to be a significant driver of global warming. More than a dozen states have either banned HFCs or are formulating some restrictions.
And it is another sign, along with Mr. Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to host a recent virtual climate summit — that the administration is reinserting the country into the international fight against global warming.
“This is incredibly significant,” said Kristen N. Taddonio, a senior climate and energy adviser for the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, an environmental nonprofit group.
“By taking fast action on these short-lived climate pollutants, of which HFCs are the most potent, we can buy ourselves some time and actually help avoid climate tipping points,” she said.
The regulation would begin to take effect in 2022 and would gradually reduce the production and importation of hydrofluorocarbons in the United States by 85 percent over the following 15 years. About 15 percent of HFCs would still be permitted because they have critical uses for which alternatives do not yet exist.
The E.P.A. estimated that by 2050 the rule would eliminate the equivalent of 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, or about three years’ worth of emissions from America’s power sector. That would help put the United States on a path toward meeting Mr. Biden’s aggressive goal of cutting America’s emissions roughly in half by 2035.
But the administration framed the new policy in economic terms. The E.P.A. estimated that the HFC rule would result in $283.9 billion in health and environmental benefits by the middle of the century by reducing climate-fueled wildfires, heat-related health problems and property damage from extreme weather events.
“This action is good for our planet and our economy,” Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the E.P.A. said in a statement, adding that it would help American businesses that are producing “climate-safe” alternatives to HFCs to succeed at home and abroad.
Several chemical companies and refrigerant producers agreed.
Since 2016 when nearly 200 nations signed an accord in Kigali, Rwanda to phase out HFCs in favor of alternatives that are less dangerous to the climate, a number of major producers ramped up their efforts to produce coolants such as hydrofluoroolefins.
The Chemours Company, for instance, has spent about $1 billion to create an alternative coolant that “can achieve many of the same results from a cooling perspective as you can get from the HFCs without the environmental impact,” said Thomas Sueta, a spokesman for the multinational chemical giant.
Critics say that the new regulations will harm consumers. Ben Lieberman, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, warned that restaurants, supermarkets and others that use commercial refrigeration would face higher costs when they bought new equipment or repaired old systems.
Kevin Fay, executive director of the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, an industry coalition organized in 1980 to address the issue of ozone depletion, said because companies have already been transitioning, the policy will not mean higher prices for autos, appliances and other products.
The E.P.A.’s action is backed by both environmental groups and the business community, which jointly championed bipartisan legislation passed by Congress in December to tackle HFCs.
But the speed with which the E.P.A. wrote and moved forward with the proposed regulation is unusual and underscores the urgency that the Biden administration is placing on climate change, said Francis Dietz, vice president for public affairs at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group.
They’re really moving swiftly,” he said. “It says they’re very serious about this.”
Like methane, HFCs have short-term warming effects far more powerful than carbon dioxide, but they don’t stay in the atmosphere as long. Scientists have estimated that reducing these types of greenhouse gases can have a palpable impact, avoiding an estimated 0.6 degrees Celsius of warming by midcentury.
Yet climate change itself appears to be causing a rise in emissions from the pollutant. According to E.P.A. data, emissions from HFCs rose by 4 million metric tons between 2018 and 2019 — a spike that analysts attributed to record-breaking heat in the United States that drove demand for air-conditioning and refrigeration.
“That’s the rub of warming and cooling technologies and why putting in place restrictions on HFCs early is so important,” said Kate Larson, a director at the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm.
As part of a sweeping coronavirus relief bill, Congress last year approved language directing the E.P.A. to curb HFCs. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, who at the time was the minority leader, called it “the single biggest victory in the fight against climate change to pass this body in a decade.”
David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program, called eliminating HFCs “absolutely critical” to ensuring that global average temperatures do not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth will face irreparable damage.
“If your goal is to keep the total warming to 1.5 degrees, you cannot do that if you add another half-degree of HFCs on top of everything else,” he said.
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The E.P.A. said it had performed an “environmental justice analysis” that found cuts to planet-warming emissions “would benefit populations that may be especially vulnerable to damages associated with climate change, such as the very young, elderly, poor, disabled and Indigenous populations.”
Under the plan, the E.P.A. will set a baseline for the amount of HFCs that are produced and consumed, and use that to establish a cap on the levels that can be created and imported into the United States. The agency will then establish a methodology for allocating allowances to companies to continue producing and importing HFCs for the years 2022 and 2023, as well as developing an enforcement system.
Under the law, allowances to companies will gradually decrease as the market for alternatives grows. There will be a 45-day comment period before the E.P.A. moves to finalize the regulation.
In the last days of the Obama administration, 197 nations, including the United States, signed the Kigali accord to phase out HFCs. President Donald J. Trump never brought the agreement to the Senate for ratification. Mr. Biden has pledged to send the Kigali amendment to the Senate.