Busoi MEP: ‘A total ban on HFCs would not be realistic’

Investments in green alternatives to F-gases are being undermined by the growing black market in refrigerants, says Cristian Bușoi. [© European Union 2020 - Source : EP]

This article is part of our special report Fluorinated gases.

As long as greener alternatives to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants are not available at a competitive price, they should not be banned, says Cristian Bușoi.

Cristian Bușoi is a Romanian MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) who chairs the European Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy (ITRE). He answered in writing to questions from EURACTIV’s Raquel Guerra.

The European Commission is about to revise the F-gas regulation. What, in your view, are the specifics that this law should contain that could reshape the future of F-gases in Europe? What are the areas where improvements are necessary in your view?

Firstly, and this is very important, it is essential to understand how well the F-gas regulation is working and whether or not it is resulting in reducing emissions of HFCs and driving the replacement of high-global warming potential HFCs with lower GWP alternatives.

One issue that needs further study is the reports that we are seeing about illegal trade in HFCs. Secondly, the current F-Gas Regulation needs to be aligned with the Montreal Protocol: currently the last phase-down of HFCs in the EU’s F-gas Regulation is scheduled for 2030, while it is 2036 in the Montreal Protocol.

On my first point, the key issue here is around the implementation and enforcement of the current regulation. There are several elements that I can see to improve this.

First, the review should bring the abuse of the T1 transit procedure to an end; too many HFC shipments supposedly transiting through the EU are illegally staying in Europe. By fixing this, member-state authorities, especially customs, will have more effective tools to fight illegal trade.

Second, the review should look at the issue of non-refillable cylinders, which were banned in 2006 but are still sold illegally and are a prime conduit for illegal HFCs. We still see countries where rules on illegal trade are too soft, border controls are not sufficiently strict, and penalties are not preventing illegal traders from doing their job.

The 2015 F-gas regulation limits the amount of the most important F-gases that can be sold in the EU, gradually phasing them down by 37% currently,  55% in January 2021, and 79% in 2030. What happens after 2030 as there is no later date in the F-regulation? Civil organisations are in favour of accelerating this timeline even further. What is your position on this?

The value chain has made major investments to meet the phase-down schedule in the current regulation. What happens after 2030 is yet unknown and is contingent upon different factors such as the development and availability of lower-GWP alternatives for high GWP HFCs as well as the enforcement of the current legislation.

As long as the current rules are not being enforced efficiently the development and uptake of alternatives will be delayed.

The industry and some civil society organisations have pointed out that the lack of enforcement of the current legal framework is a major drawback which gives room to illicit trade of F-gases entering the EU via neighbouring countries. What can be done in this regard? What do you think is the role of Parliament regarding the review that the European Commission is preparing?

I have seen the reports: investigations have indicated that large volumes come in through the EU’s neighbouring countries, such as Albania, Belarus, Turkey and Ukraine. Research has shown that there was a 40% increase in HFC exports from China to EU neighbouring countries between 2016 and 2018, accelerating steeply in 2018 at the same time that the EU quota was tightened. This is a major concern and action must be taken to control and stop illegal imports from those countries entering the EU.

The ITRE Committee that I chair is committed to end this illicit trade. I believe that the revision of the T1 transit procedure, as part of the revision of the F-gas Regulation, will make controls easier. In particular, the European Parliament, as legislator, could make it mandatory for consignees of T1 to register in the HFC registry or a F-gases specific registry.

Do you intend to introduce specific amendments to answer the industry’s demands for stricter enforcement of EU regulations? Is there any room for harmonised sanctions or border controls?

Illegal trade affects companies of all sizes all over Europe, which are not aware of the provenance of the product they have purchased. Just as illegal trade is both a European and global issue, it is also a member-state issue.

Member states need specific tools to address and defeat smuggling at their borders. For instance, I believe the review of the F-gas regulation could lead to better enforcement through better monitoring, making it easier for authorities to report on illegal products entering the EU market.

More coherence is needed in terms of national policies among member states, as rules on enforcement and penalties are softer in certain countries and stronger in others. Fines are key in this fight and need to be increased all over the EU to be more effective and discourage smugglers.

I also believe that involving customs authorities is fundamental. The increasing seizures of illegal HFCs in the past months is a clear demonstration of their importance as the front line in fighting this illegal trade.

But they require more effective weapons to be successful in this fight. For example, the coordination between customs and VAT authorities could be greatly enhanced and improved.  Above all the rapid application of the Single Cutoms window to HFCs will allow customs to have real-time control over products entering EU markets.

The European Commission is expected to introduce higher energy efficiency standards across various sectors next year, with the forthcoming revision of the Ecodesign directive. What, in your view, should the F-gas sector keep in mind?

F-gases are very energy efficient in their applications and often improve the energy efficiency of the equipment in which they are used. They are primarily used in closed-loop systems where they do not enter the environment under normal use conditions.

Developing equally efficient alternatives to high-GWP HFCs is of paramount importance if we want to meet new and higher energy efficiency standards. But investments in new technologies are being undermined by the black market, cutting into potential investment in this area. In my view progress is currently slowed by the lack of enforcement of the F-gas regulation.

How could the industry be encouraged to invest in developing next-generation refrigerants such as HFOs?

Developing alternatives to high-GWP HFCs is essential to achieve EU climate goals. The challenge lies in finding the right, lower GWP refrigerant for each application.

The EU is currently transitioning towards a number of different alternatives including newer HFCs with lower GWP, as well as the next generation of refrigerants, hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs). Supporting companies to adopt lower GWP alternatives is key, to the future success of the F-gas Regulation but this must be supported by improvements in its enforcement.

During a plenary vote in October, the European Parliament backed an EU target of 60% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030, paving the way for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Do F-gases get any room in a zero-carbon scenario? Some NGOs are asking to ban them all together.

Although I welcome the Commission’s climate ambitions, I also believe that a total ban of HFCs would not be realistic.

We must balance the benefits that they bring against the problems: for instance, they help to preserve harvest quality of fresh produce, they are used in medical inhalers, and in insulating foams, they help to keep buildings energy efficient. Using the right F-gas in the designed system improves energy efficiency and hence assists in reducing emissions.

F-gas use is equipment-specific and HFCs are a broad group of substances. An alternative that works well in one application does not necessarily have the same effect in another.

Of course, it is essential to transition towards lower-GWP solutions, in closed loop systems and with adequate disposal structures, to reach this level of climate ambition. Recovery and re-cycling is vital and in line with the Parliament’s ambitions of the Circular Economy.

However, as long as alternatives that provide the same benefits and are cost-effective are not available, HFCs should not be banned. This is why a thorough review of the current technologies, involving industry and all stakeholders, as well as a full impact assessment of any proposals for the revision of the F-gas Regulation are essential.

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