Draft EU law slaps F-gas ban on domestic fridges

  

The European Commission has drawn up a plan to outlaw planet-warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in domestic refrigerators and freezers by 2015, and commercial coolers by 2020, under a draft regulation seen by EurActiv.

HFC’s are a fluorinated gas (or F-gas) used to substitute for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) since the Montreal Protocol began phasing them out in 1987. They can also be up to 22,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

By 2030, the EU’s new package of bans, quotas, phase-downs, improved monitoring and leak prevention aims to cut HFC sales by 21% of today’s levels.

The use of HFCs in movable room air conditioning systems would also be banned from 2020.

“Regulation has a proven track record of success,” the Liberal Democrat MEP Chris Davies told EurActiv. “There’s every likelihood that a measure of this kind will place European manufacturers at the forefront of worldwide development.” 

The proposed new law would affect a global industry and is being fiercely contested in the corridors of the European Commission. It could yet change before it is unveiled in the next few weeks, as an epic lobby battle draws to a close.

Trade frictions

The European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), a business group representing the heating, cooling and refrigeration industry, is one of those lobbying the Commission.

Andrea Voigt, EPEE director, said she welcomed the phase-down principle contained in the Commission proposal but warned that attempts to ban imports could cause trade frictions. “The World Trade Organization is definitely an issue,” she told EurActiv.

But Davies disagreed. “The WTO is usually a paper tiger,” he said, “so long as the rule applies to everyone equally.”  The EU’s lawyers would have anticipated any challenges, he added.

In its current form, the draft regulation  bans the sale or import of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump equipment that has been “pre-charged” with HFCs abroad, such as domestic refrigerators, freezers, foams, aerosols, and solvents.

Sources say that any challenge is most likely to contend that this sets up a barrier against “like products” of foreign origin that could be found unjustifiable or arbitrary, although such a case would not be clean-cut.

Industry representatives contacted by EurActiv said that they expected a challenge to the proposal in the WTO, and many were unhappy in principle with the idea of product prohibitions.

“We don’t see the necessity of adding any bans on top of a phase down,” Voigt said. “The big advantage of a phase down is that you can spread the cost and not suddenly be faced with the massive costs linked to a ban,” she said. 

Lobby battle

Up to 353 industry advocates have registered in Brussels, representing 111 companies all pushing the EU for favourable F-gas legislation, according to a report last month by Corporate Europe Observatory.

The paper, which was based only on voluntary declarations by industry groups, found that 52% of the companies had registered in the last quarter of 2011, including 14 European subsidiaries of the Japanese air conditioning giant Daikin.

Environmental groups and natural refrigerant companies have also lobbied hard, spending €3.1 million in a push for HFC bans and substitutions with alternative chillers such as ammonia, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide.

But these groups claim to be outgunned by 100 of the 111 industry groups listed in the EU’s transparency register, which have a total declared lobbying budget of €23.9 million.

The phase-out of CFCs cost one manufacturer about €100 million, a company representative told EurActiv last year, and the price of phasing out HFCs would “probably be much higher,” he said.

“Lobbying against change is to be expected but once an agreement has been reached then industry delivers,” Davies said.

F-gas bans

The draft regulation envisages an EU phase-down mechanism that gradually tightens a declining ‘cap’ on bulk HFCs coming onto the European market, with a freeze in 2015, a first cut in 2016, and then reductions to 21% of the levels sold in 2008-2011 by 2030.

The draft regulation says that “a general ban on the intentional and avoidable releases of F-gases should be introduced”.

Placing products containing HFCs on the market would be prohibited, where natural alternatives exist – such as ammonia, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide itself.

F-gases with a global warming potential (GWP) more than 2150 times greater than CO2 would be banned for the servicing or maintaining of refrigeration equipment, from 2018.

Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), which has a GWP 22,800 times that of carbon dioxide, would be proscribed for use in trades such as magnesium die-casting and filling vehicle tyres. 

An embargo would also be tagged on HFC-23s, which have a GWP 14,800 times greater than carbon dioxide and an atmospheric half life of 270 years. HFC-23s. One peer-reviewed report last year claimed that HFC-23 emissions in the EU were up to 140% greater than reported.

Global warming

In 2005, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that the built-up concentration of F-gases in the atmosphere accounted for 17% of the total human contribution to global warming.

F-gases probably account for around 1%-2% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions today, but the US National Academy of Sciences says that if nothing is done, that figure could rise to between 9%-19% by 2050.

But those figures are contested by industry associations, and whatever action the EU eventually takes to deal with the HFC issue could still face guerrilla action down the line.

“There will be a long process involving the European Parliament and member states before we come up with a final version,” said Tim Vink, a spokesman for Honeywell Fluorine.

Positions: 

“We see the Commission’s proposal as really positive and decisive,” Fionnuala Walravens, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Investigations Agency, told EurActiv. “We’re particularly pleased to see the bans which have been put in place on commercial refrigeration, because our work on supermarkets has shown that it is a no-brainer to move away from HFCs in those sectors, an easy win. We’re also pleased to see the ban on HFCs with a high global warming potential over 2150.”

However the proposed phase down schedule was “not ambitious enough,” she said. “There’s definitely room for it to be tightened, especially at the beginning. We are keen to ensure that it really drives low global warming potential alternatives and not moderate ones, like HFC-32 in the air conditioning sector – which is about 600 times more potent that CO2. “We wanted to see more bans, and I’m surprised they haven’t [banned HFCs] from foams given the cost-effectiveness and amount of savings they could drive.”  

Tim Vink, the director of regulatory affairs for Honeywell Fluorine Products, told EurActiv that he had seen a draft of the new regulation and “on balance there are good things and things that could be improved.” He went on: “It seems that the regulation introduces a complete ban on the use of HFCs in commercial and industrial refrigeration and I don’t think that’s compatible with the Ecodesign Directive. Some of the proposals also tend to ignore the differences between northern and southern Europe.”

Introducing a cap and quota scheme was a market-based approach that he favoured. But “we believe you don’t need bans to reach the objective,” he cautioned. “The proposal is pretty ambitious and will deliver the results the Commission is seeking.”

“It could well be considered a disproportionate barrier to trade,” he continued. “I think there will be challenges under the WTO. “I could expect that some of the exporting industries would call on their governments to challenge this under the WTO rules.”

Graeme Fox, the president of the European refrigeration and air conditioning association AREA, said that the proposal “could have been worse.” He told EurActiv that “a lot of people are upset about certain aspects of it but certain aspects of it have pleased us. A ban on precharging equipment is actually our concept. We came up with the idea three years ago and I didn’t expect that to be written in the proposal but it is, and I think that’s very important. It’s the only solution to make sure that we get professional installation.”

“Only certified installers can buy the equipment from wholesalers, and the reason why we formulated the position in the first place is because as contractors, we’ve been concerned about a number of cases across Europe where people have bought cheap split type units through retail outlets or over the internet, and installed them with absolutely no qualifications or competence. Our members have reported call-outs to put these installations right because they haven’t been installed properly and all the gas has been lost. So we want to make sure that we can close up the loophole by putting restrictions on the sales route, and stopping pre-charged equipment from getting in.”

But Fox said that he expected a WTO dispute over the proposal. “I’d expect most of what is the draft to be challenged by one side or another but we don’t exist to appease lobbyists. We are here to represent our member’s interests.”

Timeline: 
  • Oct./Nov. 2012: EU Commission due to announce its proposal for addressing F-gas emissions
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