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.
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.
In the European Parliament, reactions were generally upbeat.
Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP who is the lead negotiator on the legislation for the European Parliament for the Greens/EFA political group, said the vote represented “an important step in the fight against climate change”.
“Emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases have risen by 60% since 1990 in the EU. Banning the use of these ‘super greenhouse gases’ in refrigeration and air-conditioning is therefore urgently needed to reverse this negative trend", Eickhout said.
Referring to a recent agreement between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Eickhout added: "The US and China have said they are willing to scale back use of HFCs. EU legislation can set a global example on how to do it."
Jo Leinen, a German MEP who is spokesperson for the on F-gases for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in Parliament, said F-gases “are harmful for the environment and have no future in the European Union”.
"The EU has committed itself to reduce the use of all hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Today we called for a ban of these harmful substances in products where sustainable alternatives already exist.
"The F-gas regulation will not only lead to substantial benefits for the environment, but also stimulate European industry, which is the front runner in producing goods with climate friendly alternatives."
The environmental NGO community also seemed happy with the outcome of the F-gas vote.
Susanna Williams, policy officer for energy and climate change at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: “The bans, coupled with a strong phase-down schedule, will assure the producers of alternative technologies that investing in increased production will pay off. This will bring down the upfront costs of such equipment and products and make them an economically sound choice while reducing the climate impact of the sectors.”
She also praised the Environment Committee for introducing an allocation fee of up to €10, which would be charged to producers and importers when they access HFC quotas. The revenue, Williams explained, would be used to finance projects to speed the uptake of alternative technologies and support compliance with the legislation as well as to facilitate an international agreement to phase down HFCs.
The EEB policy officer added that European companies should benefit from a first-mover advantage.
“The alternative technologies are produced predominantly by European companies, many of them small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and the Environment Committee wants to boost this home-grown market. It is now up to the member states to ensure that they take an equally progressive stance to ensure that European companies can benefit from the early-mover advantages that this regulation can foster.”
- July: EU Council of Ministers expected to adopt a common position on the F-gas proposal.
- Autumn: Talks between the European Parliament and the member states in the Council could then begin, with Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout in the lead on the Parliament side.