EU seeks to phase out planet-warming refrigerants

F-gases are used mainly as coolants in air conditioning and in domestic, supermarket and industrial refrigeration, which altogether represent an outstanding 90% of total emissions. [ / Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Fluorinated gases.

The EU’s legislation on fluorinated gases, adopted in 2014, needs an overhaul “to increase ambition in line with the European Green Deal” and “better prevent” an ongoing surge of illegal imports coming from China, an EU official told EURACTIV.

Demand for F-gases, a family of chemicals used as a refrigerant, has increased steadily since they were introduced in the early 1990s to replace the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

But F-gases are also among the most potent greenhouse gases and are now also being phased out as a result.

Emissions of F-gases soared about 70% between 1990 and 2014, and peaked globally in 2015. They currently amount to 2.5% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Environment Agency.

Their impact on the earth’s climate is considerable. Fluorinated gases have a global warming potential (GWP) up to 23,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Moreover, they can linger in the atmosphere up to 270 years in the case of HFCs, while sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) can stay for millennia.

The culprits are well identified. F-gases are used mainly as coolants in air conditioning and in domestic, supermarket and industrial refrigeration, which altogether represent an outstanding 90% of total emissions.

Potential leakages in all these areas spring from production plants and the manipulation of pre-charged equipment.

A global affair

Worldwide, demand for HFCs is on the rise due to the mass adoption of Western lifestyles, which rely heavily on food preservation and air-conditioning in cars and buildings.

The impact of F-gases is global since they blend with other gases in the atmosphere.

The EU is thus considering a legislative revision in line with its “international obligations on hydrofluorocarbons,” an EU official told EURACTIV.

Effective in 2019, the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol – which successfully phased out the ozone-depleting CFCs – “is expected to prevent a temperature increase of 0.4 degrees Celsius by 2100 and is essential for achieving the Paris Agreement objective,” the official said.

Italy, Malta and Spain, however, are amongst the EU member states that still need to ratify the Kigali amendment. ECODES, a Spanish NGO, has called on the Spanish government to “lead the market transformation” and shift to “natural refrigerants in all public buildings by 2030”.

Demand for cooling could outstrip heating as Earth warms

A burgeoning middle class and a warming world will result in energy demand for cooling overtaking that for heating by the middle of the century, researchers have predicted. EURACTIV’s partner The Guardian reports.

Current EU framework

As part of its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU passed the first F-gas regulation in 2006, introducing containment and reporting obligations on producers. The Mobile Air Conditioning Directive, adopted the same year, introduces a gradual ban on F-gases in passenger cars.

The European Commission’s assessment of those laws came to the conclusion that the regulation has been successful as the total supply of F-gases in the EU has decreased since 2015. In 2018, their warming effect decreased by 30%, the EU executive said.

The 2014 F-gas regulation, a worldwide pioneer, established a quota system for the volume of HFCs that can be placed on the EU market annually, and a timeline for progressively phasing them down.

The regulation introduced a cap to achieve a 79% reduction in F-gases by 2030 compared to 2014 levels while mandating companies to report their annual production, imports, and export activities involving HFCs.

Pre-charged equipment, where greener alternatives are widely available, and new HFC equipment will be banned by 2022 in specific sectors.

EU reaches deal to cap super-warming F-gases

The European Union on Monday (16 December) reached a tentative deal on limiting the use in fridges and air conditioners of fluorinated gases that have a global warming potential thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide.

A green review

The EU’s F-gas review is expected to see the light in late 2021 when the European Commission tables a legislative proposal. A public consultation is running until 29 December 2020 to explore whether more climate-friendly alternatives are available.

The Commission will also consider introducing harmonised sanctions, although it is currently up to the member states to interpret what constitutes a dissuasive penalty against environmental crimes.

But even the Commission doubts emissions can be stopped entirely. “At this stage, we cannot say if it will be feasible to fully avoid F-gas emissions by 2050, not least because in some cases F-gases may still be emitted by old equipment and products, e.g. in landfills,” the official said.

Rita Tedesco from ECOS, a green pressure group, said the new regulation should introduce “minimum requirements on the collection, reclamation, recycling, and disposal” of F-gases, and require industry to finance these activities.

Aiming for a total ban, Tedesco said there is “no room for F-gases if we truly want the EU to be carbon neutral by 2050”.

Lack of enforcement

However, the EU’s crackdown on F-gases has also had unintended consequences. The mid-2018 HFC quota, which was initially established with the intention of provoking a price hike and force a shift towards less polluting alternatives, has instead attracted smuggling networks bringing cheap HFCs from China to the EU through neighbouring countries.

The industry is particularly unhappy about the EU’s failure to implement the existing rules and demands new measures, including better monitoring systems and the empowerment of customs and surveillance authorities.

“Enforcement is left to member states and they have not been provided with the appropriate tools, where countries like Italy have not enacted the legislation until last year,” said Sameer Bharadwaj, president of Koura, a manufacturer of HFCs.

In 2021, the Commission will put forward a proposal for a Single Customs IT system, replacing manual checks by a real-time tracking system, which is expected to become mandatory across all EU member states in 2024.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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