The Biden administration apparently wants to add air conditioning to the long list of items becoming more expensive. This latest threat to consumers comes from the Kigali Amendment, a United Nations environmental treaty that the president recently submitted to the Senate for a ratification vote. The Senate should say no to this unnecessary and expensive measure.
The Kigali Amendment places limits on the production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a widely used class of refrigerants that are often blamed for contributing to climate change. How widely used are they? HFCs are needed to operate most home and vehicle air conditioners. They are also used in the air conditioning and refrigeration equipment relied upon by millions of businesses, schools, hospitals, houses of worship, and other public buildings.
Unfortunately, domestic restrictions on HFCs are already in force in the United States, slipped into a big spending bill and passed with minimal debate during the lame duck session of Congress in December 2020. They went into force on January 1, 2022.
Replenishing HFCs lost from a leak, a common occurrence, will rise as the quotas for HFCs take effect and prices increase. In fact, prices for many HFCs have already nearly quadrupled. New equipment will also get pricier, as it will have to be redesigned to use one of the alternatives to the HFCs in use today. Many of these second-best refrigerants carry a price premium, and others raise flammability concerns.
This year’s air conditioning season—just a few months away—may prove to be the costliest ever. Some residential repairs could cost hundreds of dollars more than they used to. Subsequent years will likely get worse as the HFC quotas ratchet down.
Leading the charge in the Senate for these domestic measures and the overlapping international ones in the Kigali Amendment are Democrat Tom Carper and Republican John Kennedy. Coincidence or not, Chemours—a DuPont spinoff company—has patented a number of substitute refrigerants and is headquartered in Carper’s home state of Delaware. Honeywell, the other big patent holder, has a facility making these new refrigerants in Kennedy’s Louisiana. One such refrigerant, developed jointly by the two companies for use in new vehicle air conditioners, costs 10 times more than the pre-regulation price of the HFC it replaces.
These and other advantage-seeking companies in the air conditioning and refrigeration sector have joined forces with climate activists to make for a powerful lobbying coalition.
Despite the fact that domestic restrictions on HFCs are already on the books, there is still good reason for the Senate to stand firm against the Kigali Amendment. As it is, Congress could revisit its HFC provisions should there be a consumer backlash and offer some legislative relief. However, any such mid-course corrections would be much more difficult if the Senate cedes control over the issue to the United Nations by ratifying the Kigali Amendment.
Beyond the consumer impacts, the Senate should also object to the unfairness of the Kigali Amendment. Most notably, China is considered a developing nation under the treaty and as such is entitled to much more lenient treatment than the U.S. and other developed nations. For example, many manufacturing processes require cold conditions and need specialized refrigeration systems; under Kigali such manufacturers in China can continue to rely on cheap HFC-using systems long after their American competitors will have to make a costly switch.
Even worse, China can exploit its status as a developing nation under Kigali and receive financial assistance from a United Nations fund, for which the U.S. is the largest contributor. Try explaining that to a public already angry over higher prices.
Messing with Americans’ air conditioners is a recipe for political trouble, and all for a contribution to climate change from HFCs that the Environmental Protection Agency tags at around 3 percent. Instead, the Senate should focus on reconsidering its regrettable decision to target HFCs rather than doubling down by entangling us in another costly and unfair United Nations treaty.