Hydrofluorocarbons, a group of industrial chemicals that are used to cool homes and food, suppress fires and aid in a host of manufacturing processes, are also damaging the climate system, overheating the planet and endangering life on Earth.
During the past decade, Cindy Newberg has worked to get countries around the world to reach an international agreement to phasedown the use of hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs; advised Congress on legislation to uphold the U.S. portion of the agreement; worked with industry and environmental groups to reach consensus; and most recently played an instrumental role within the Environmental Protection Agency to craft regulations to implement the law.
“Cindy Newberg’s leadership at home and abroad has given the world a fighting chance to avoid the worst impacts of climate change by leading both domestic and global efforts to phase down the climate-changing, super-pollutant chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons,” said Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA’s Office of Atmospheric Programs. “Reducing HFCs in the near term gives our species more time in the long term to address climate issues.”
EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Newberg has been able to work with environmental groups, industry and different presidential administrations to bridge differences and achieve significant results to protect the environment.
“Cindy’s role was crucial as a leader and a problem-solver by developing and sharing analyses that showed the phasedown of HFCs was feasible, alternatives were available and countries would get benefits from joining the phasedown,” Regan said.
Newberg started her work on pollutants nearly three decades ago when she first arrived at the EPA and dealt directly with manufacturers that used refrigerant coolants that were toxic to the atmosphere. From that experience, she said she learned the importance of engaging the people who worked directly with harmful chemicals.
“Getting an agreement is not about telling people what they cannot do, but rather what they can do to help the environment,” Newberg said. “If you want to make real change, you need to bring people along.”
Newberg carried that lesson forward as she worked on aviation emissions and the impact of rocket fuel on the environment and then served on delegations at international environmental meetings.
A dozen years ago she became the leader of the EPA’s technical team negotiating what became known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement reached in Kigali, Rwanda, in October 2016 that phases down HFCs globally by 80% to 85% by 2047.
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international treaty ratified by nearly 200 countries, is designed to protect the ozone layer from numerous pollutants. It went into effect in January 1989 and has been hailed as one of the most successful international agreements. Over the years, amendments have been added to further strengthen it.
By 2050 the Kigali Amendment is expected to avoid as much climate-warming emissions as the entire planet now emits every two years. The HFC phasedown will prevent up to half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of this century, a critical step toward meeting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.
To reach consensus on contentious issues regarding the pollutants, Newberg attended negotiation sessions overseas, providing critical technical and policy analyses and tapping into the relationships she had built over the years with industry, nongovernmental groups and colleagues from all over the world.
“She demonstrated her commitment to service, her extraordinary technical and problem-solving skills, and her relentless drive and resilience by being at every negotiating session, in every part of the world,” Grundler said.
He added that international negotiations are very tedious and “to not give up, in light of other opposition, says a lot about Cindy and her commitment to her mission.”
Once the Kigali Amendment was signed, Newberg took on the crucial role of providing Congress with the technical advice it needed to pass legislation upholding the United States’ commitments. She also testified before Congress to describe how the implementation experiences under the Montreal Protocol could serve as a model for phasing down HFCs.
In December 2020, Congress passed by a bipartisan vote the American Innovation in Manufacturing Act, which authorized the EPA to implement the Kigali Amendment and manage existing sources of HFC emissions. The legislation won the support of a diverse array of interests—from the Natural Resources Defense Council to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Once the legislation arrived at the EPA, Newberg and her team worked to meet a nine-month deadline for the implementing regulations even as a tumultuous change in presidential administrations occurred.
Newberg said her work has been “about human health and a safer environment.”
“The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was one of the most meaningful things I have done in my life—taking a class of chemicals that were contributing significantly to climate change, finding a path forward and saving up to a half-degree Celsius of warming by 2100,” Newberg said. “Our domestic HFC regulations will result in more climate benefits for the United States than anything the EPA has ever done.”