The European Parliament's Environment Committee has backed a sweeping ban on the use in refrigerators and air conditioners of fluorinated gases - greenhouse gases that are many thousands of times more damaging than carbon dioxide in warming up the earth's atmosphere.

The plan, approved in a committee vote on Wednesday (19 June), goes much further than a proposal from the European Commission.

It seeks a gradual phase-out and ban in new equipment by 2020, and to levy a charge on the use of the gases by producers. The ban would have to be approved by a plenary session of the Parliament and by EU countries before becoming law.

Some two decades after international action led to the phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the Commission is trying to eliminate this new generation of climate-harming chemicals, known as F-gases.

F-gases, used as coolants in air conditioning and in domestic, supermarket and industrial refrigeration, were introduced as a solution easily acceptable to industry, since their production chain resembled that for CFCs.

But their global warming potential, up to 23,000 times more than carbon dioxide, has led the Commission to push for natural non-synthetic alternatives such as ammonia or CO2, which can have high cooling properties when used in refrigeration.

Industry 'disappointed'

Manufacturers say they support change, but many argue it needs time to develop the right refrigerants as in some cases the alternatives are flammable, toxic or less energy-efficient.

"We are very disappointed that the Environment Committee has chosen the course of command and control politics with the highest price tag that Europeans will have to pay for," the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment, which represents Europe's heating and cooling industry, said. Its members include Fujitsu and Honeywell.

Environmental campaigners and some small firms, specialised in natural refrigerants, say the opposite.

They argue that replacement technology is already available and deploying it would help small innovative companies based in Europe to gain an international edge.

"HFC-free alternatives are ready, and this is an opportunity to put European businesses at the forefront of the ever-growing refrigeration and air-conditioning markets while scoring a crucial victory for the climate," said the Environmental Investigation Agency, a group involved in climate issues.

In contrast to a drop in other emissions, F-gases have risen in the European Union by 60% since 1990.

They leak into the atmosphere from production plants and during the operation and disposal of products and equipment that contains them.