NGO coalition demands ban on super greenhouse gas

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Six NGOs are calling for the European Commission to propose a ban on some uses of the most potent greenhouse gas known to humankind, sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), after a new report found that existing alternative technologies were no more expensive.

SF6, which is used in power line switchgears, is a fluorinated gas (aka F-gas) that is 22, 800 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and has an atmospheric lifespan of 3,000 years

“A ban on SF6 use in medium volt switchgear is a no-brainer, like the switch away from old fashioned light bulbs,” said Ton Sledsens, a spokesman for Natuur and Milieu, the Dutch NGO which commissioned the report.

“It would prevent the use of a chemical with a gigantic climate effect, and SF6-free alternatives have the same price and are already widely sold by all producers.”

The report by the Dutch consultancy firm CE Delft finds no evidence that using air or solid insulation materials is more expensive, in contrast to an EU impact assessment by the Öko-Recherche institute last year.

“In point of fact, SF6–free switchgear generally appears to be up to 10% cheaper than the corresponding SF6–containing alternative [for Medium Voltage switchgear],” says the report, titled ‘Abatement cost of SF6 emissions from medium voltage switchgear’.

The CE Delft study argues that the cost disparity results from an omission of factors such as maintenance costs from the Öko-Recherche study, and from its use of a type of MV switchgear with low SF6 content to calculate emissions.  

Business groups and European institutions contacted by EurActiv did not respond to requests for comment. But the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), a trade group representing manufacturers that use F-gases in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems, argue their products have "distinct environmental and safety benefits" as they are non-ozone depleting, of low toxicity, and of low flammability.

Even so, a coalition of NGOs – including the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Climate Action Network, the European Environmental Bureau and the Environmental Investigations Agency – put out a joint call to ban SF6.

Natuur and Milieu argue that if 16 megatonnes of SF6 CO2 equivalent are currently being pumped into the atmosphere, and a carbon price of €10 a tonne is assumed, a ban would save Europe €160 million a year.

SF6 origins

The origin of some 75% of SF6 emissions can be divided equally between its use as an insulator in medium voltage (MV), and in high voltage (HV) switchgears.   

But while Natuur and Milieu call for an immediate proscription on SF6 MW use, the group accepts that more research and development is needed for alternative substitutes in HV technology.

Sulphur hexafluoride only began its commercial life 30 years ago, but during the 1980s and 1990s, its global average concentration rose by around 7% a year, and that rise has continued at a “dramatic pace”, Sledsens said, despite attempts to phase it out. 

In its 2006 F-Gas regulation, the European Commission banned the use of SF6 as a filling gas for insulated double glazing in windows, tennis balls, car tyres and sport shoe soles.

But broken equipment made with the inert gas may still vent into the atmosphere where, as an extremely shiny and reflective particle, SF6 reflects heat and radiation back down to earth.

EU legislation

This autumn, the EU is expected to bring forward a proposal to further reduce pollution from F-gases, which has sparked a burst of lobbying and counter-lobbying by industry and NGO groups.

Italy and Malta were sent warnings about their non-compliance with existing F-gas legislation earlier this year, and have until the end of this month to address the issue.

“So far no official reply has been received from the two member states,” a European Commission spokesperson told EurActiv. “Once the deadline has expired, the Commission will evaluate the progress made in the two member states and on that basis decide whether or not to refer the member states to the Court of Justice.”

F-gases currently make up just 1%-2% of greenhouse gas emissions, but that figure could rise to between 9%-19% of all emissions by 2050 if nothing is done. 

Sledsens said his biggest worry was that quantities of SF6 vented today would still be in the atmosphere three millennia from now, affecting countless future generations.

“If the Coliseum had been built using SF6, we would still be measuring it now, and so would the next 30 generations,” he said. “It is not just a technical issue, it is also a moral issue.”

Timeline: 
  • Autumn 2012: EU due to bring forward proposal addressing F-gas emissions
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