Fluorinated gases and climate change

EU lawmakers in January 2006 struck an agreement on a proposal to cut down emissions of fluorinated gases as part of the Kyoto protocol on climate change. F-gases are widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning but have a high global warming potential and can sometimes stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. The agreement mainly seeks to improve the containment and recovery of F-gases and imposes regular checks on industrial refrigeration installations. After much discussion, the compromise allows countries like Denmark and Austria to maintain stricter controls than elsewhere in Europe until 2012. A phase-out of HFC-134a in car air conditioning has also been approved as of 2011 with a complete ban applying from 2017.

Background

F-gases (hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, perfluorocarbons or PFCs and sulphur hexafluoride or SF6) are new industrial gases used in several applications - industrial refrigeration, air conditioning systems, foam blowers, electrical switches, sport shoe 'air soles', car tyres and many others.

F-gases replaced the ozone-depleting CFCs and HCFCs in the 1990s. They are non-ozone depleting, have low toxicity levels and low flammability. However, because of their high global warming potential (GWP), several member states have already adopted legislation to monitor, control or phase out some of them (Austria and Denmark in particular).

Issues

The European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers reached a compromise on a proposal to curb emissions of F-gases on 31 January 2006 (EURACTIV, 1 Feb. 2006). The agreement came by way of the conciliation procedure, after the two EU law-making bodies failed to agree on the details of what now looks like a complex piece of legislation. It comprises two elements:

1) regulation (directly enforceable at national level) covering air conditioning systems and industrial refrigeration equipment as well as other 'stationary' industrial applications (heat pumps, fire extinguishers, high-voltage switchgear, F-gas containers, etc.). Domestic refrigerators - the large majority of which function on hydrocarbons - are excluded from the scope of the text. The regulation deals with the following aspects:

  • A containment obligation to minimise leakages from refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump equipment on industrial premises. Checks need to be done by certified personnel at least once a year.
  • Recovery of used equipment to ensure it is recycled or destroyed.
  • Certification and training of personnel in charge of maintenance to ensure EU-wide minimum standards are respected.
  • Labelling of products and equipment becomes compulsory (industrial applications only).
  • Reporting of emissions data to the Commission on an annual basis (applies to producers, importers, exporters).
  • Ban on SF6 (magnesium die-casting, vehicle tyres) and other F-gases for specific uses where containment is not feasible (non-refillable containers, windows, footwear, self-chilling drinks cans, etc.).
  • Legal basis:

    • environment (Article 175 of EC Treaty) for containment, recovery, certification and reporting. This means that member states are allowed to adopt more stringent rules for these.
    • internal market (Article 95 of EC Treaty) for use bans, prohibitions and labelling.

2) A directive on car air conditioning (to be transposed at national level)

  • As of 2011: ban on F-gases with a global warming potential (GWP) of more than 150 for new models coming out of factories. This effectively rules out the use of HFC-134a but allows the less potent HFC-152a, which has a global warming potential of 120 (CO2 = 1 on GWP scale).
  • As of 2017: ban on F-gases with GWP of more than 150 for all cars.
  • Legal basis: internal market (Article 95 of EC Treaty).

Positions

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas says the agreed measures should shave some 20% off EU F-gas emissions by the year 2012 compared to 1995 levels.

European Parliament rapporteur MEP Avril Doyle (EPP-ED, Ireland) said, "Member States which currently have progressive legislation on fluorinated greenhouse gases have not been forced to lower their environmental standards. This sends a strong signal to Member States that they will be given every encouragement from the European Institutions to meet their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol." 

The European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), which represents producers of F-gases, supports the principle of controlling emissions rather than imposing a phase out or a ban. It therefore commended the Council and Parliament on reaching "a workable compromise" on the F-gas regulation focusing on containment. A key point for EFCTC is to keep market conditions level across the EU. "What is particularly important for us is that the internal market is respected. Banned products should be the same everywhere," said Véronique Garny from EFCTC, a member of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC).

The European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), an organisation representing refrigerant manufacturers using HFCs, has also been lobbying hard for containment measures instead of a ban on HFCs. EPEE noted with satisfaction that the compromise "prohibits the introduction of new measures from 2005" and that "existing national measures will cease to apply after 2012".

Environmental organisations have been calling for an immediate phase-out of F-gases because of their high global warming potential and have supported Austria and Denmark in their efforts to maintain their own, stricter national rules. "Austrians and Danes have a lot to celebrate," commented Mahi Sideridou,  EU climate and energy policy director at Greenpeace after the agreement was announced. "We welcome the reduction [in greenhouse gas emissions] that the bill will create." However, in her view, the compromise misses out on the much greater reduction potential that the bill initially offered. "It is mostly a failure of the Commission," says Sideridou who believes the EU executive caved in to pressure from chemicals producers such as Dupont and Solvay. Greenpeace advocates the use of alternatives such as CO2 or hydrocarbon-based coolants as well as its own 'Greenfreeze' technology.

Concerning car air conditioning, alternatives to HFC-134a are still in the development phase and cannot be mass-produced at the moment, said F-gas producers at the EFCTC. The European car maker association (ACEA) said the phase-out was "challenging" but feasible and indicated that car makers are now focusing on finding viable alternatives. Japanese car makers (JAMA) said phasing out HFC-134a is not a problem for them as the Japanese market is already led by strong consumer demand for environmentally-friendly air conditioning. 

One car industry expert said he believes most manufacturers will opt for a longer-term alternative to HFC-152a as it is relatively flammable and because it is likely to be phased out at a later stage anyway. He said most will opt for CO2-based mobile air conditioning instead - a technology which still needs further development (for more on car manufacturer's reactions, see EURACTIV 18 Oct. 2004).

Timeline

  • 31 January 2006: Parliament and Council reach a compromise agreement on:
    • regulation on 'stationary' industrial installations such as refrigerators and air conditioning systems;
    • directive to phase out HFC-134a from car air conditioning systems
  • 6 April 2006: Parliament gives formal green light to compromise deal (press release)
  • 25 April 2006: Council adopts rules on fluorinated greenhouse gases and on air conditioning in motor vehicles (press release)
  • 2010: Commission to assess need for further action and EU standards in the light of progress made on international commitments (post-Kyoto).
  • 2012: specific national measures to be lifted in favour of an EU-wide standard. 

Further Reading

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