Brussels weighs billion-dollar F-gas industry ban

  

Planet-warming gases used to power Europe's refrigerators and air conditioning should be banned or face a weighting system based on their global warming potential, a consultants' report to the EU says.

Fluorinated gases (also known as HFCs or F-gases) only contribute around 2% of greenhouse gases today but if business continues as usual, that figure could rise to between 9% and 19% by 2050.

An interim review of a 2006 EU law to restrict the use of F-gases in Europe, seen by EurActiv, is recommending new policies to promote "further reductions of F-gas emissions" for mobile air conditioning systems in cars, ships, trains and refrigerated transport systems. 

"Bans have been the most effective type of measure so far and resulted in significant and measurable reductions of F-gas consumption and hence emissions," says the report by German research firm Öko-Recherche.

But it also lists alternatives. "The option to establish step-wise gwp [global warming potential]-weighted limits for the placing on the market of HFCs has been identified to show the highest emission reduction potential," the report says.

An EU official confirmed to EurActiv that both options had advantages and were being considered for recommendation in an impact assessment that will be published in September or October.

In practice, either could lead to a 'phase-out' or 'phase-down' of some of the worst-polluting F-gases, over an undetermined period, and their replacement with natural refrigerants such as ammonia, propane, butane and CO2 (a relatively harmless substance when used this way).

The most widely-used F-gas, HFC 134a, is over a thousand times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

A phase out of HFC 134a started this year under a 2006 EU directive banning its use in newly "type-approved" cars. By 2017, the directive will apply to all cars.

Industry costs

Industry sources say a wider ban on F-gases could cost Europe's businesses hundreds of millions of euros, and plead for more time to assess the effectiveness of existing legislation.

Europe's refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump industry has an annual turnover of around €30 billion and employs around 200,000 people.

EurActiv understands that one industrial manufacturer estimates the cost of the last phase-out of ozone-depleting CFCs in the late 1980s and 1990s at around $100 million.

The cost of phasing out F-gases would "probably be much higher," an industrial source added, "because HFCs share a lot of the same characteristics as the ozone-depleting refrigerants".

Environmentalists dispute such figures. "It only costs a small amount more and you have to look at the whole lifecycle," Marc Chasserot, director of the environmental marketing and communications firm Shecco, told EurActiv.

He noted that many F-gas manufacturers were already investing in more energy-efficient natural refrigerants to spread their risk. 

The wider green argument - that climate change is moving faster than industry or government - also seems to have received backing from the Öko-Recherche report.

This has led to accusations of bias.

Bias accusations

The European Fluorocarbon Technical Committee (EFCTC), which represents F-gas manufacturers, has sent a letter to Brussels complaining that the expertise of the Öko-Recherche consultants was in "technical analysis and promotion of alternative refrigerants rather than the fluorinated gases".

"This could potentially conflict with the work to be carried out for this report," the letter continued.

But environmental NGOs claimed that it was they who had been denied access to the stakeholder consultation.

"I was locked out of the stakeholder group and so were a number of NGOs," David Holyoake, legal advisor to environmental group Client Earth, told EurActiv.

"That was the only opportunity for formal engagement with Okö-Recherche - who were also sat at the table - or the Commission."

After the release of its final impact assessment report this autumn, Brussels will decide whether or not to propose changes to the F-gas regulation later in the year.

Arthur Neslen

Positions: 

Andrea Voigt, director-general of the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), said that a phase-out of HFCs would not lead to greenhuose gas emissions reductions "because it would push the industry and users to find alternatives which might not be suited for the intended application".

"It would be counter-productive in that it would very probably lead to higher energy consumption and therefore higher emissions, whereas a phase-down would give industry flexibility to look into alternatives and innovate."

Tim Vink, director of refrigerant manufacturer Honeywell's government relations arm, also supported a gradual phase-down of HFCs because "as a market-based instrument, it avoids politicians making choices determining which applications and products can and cannot be used. It provides legal certainty over a longer time period to the business community enabling them to take investment and technology decisions and then compete in markets".

The director of the environmental communications and marketing firm Shecco, Marc Chasserot, told EurActiv that the problem over the last 20 years of international negotiations had been a lack of education about alternatives to F-gases.

"The chemical manufacturers say 'OK, we'll phase out one product in our range and replace it with another', but they never talk about natural refrigerants, because they are not patented and they can't make money out of that," he said.

Some industrial firms were now attempting to blend different hydrocarbons without fluoride, such as the pure hydrocarbon formulation HCR188C2. But refrigerants such as CO2 and ammonia remained patent-free, he added.

David Holyoake of Client Earth said that enforcement issues were critical. "There's a raft of reasons why [the legislation] hasn't been enforced," he said.

"But one is because it was so heavily compromised by industry during the [legislative] process. You have ambiguous prohibitions that are sometimes hard to decipher, you don't have cost thresholds set, and you've got exemptions. For example, the Commission says that operators must recover and destroy HFCs in these circumstances unless it's 'disproportionately expensive' – but without any guidance as to what that means."

Timeline: 
  • 11 Oct. 2011: European Commission will release impact assessment into need for further regulation of F-gases.
  • 2012: Specific national measures to be lifted in favour of EU-wide standard. 
  • By 2017: Ban on F-gases with global warming potential (gwp) of more than 150 in car air conditioning systems.
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