Report: Europe could kick the F-gas habit by 2020


Most fluorinated greenhouse gases (also known as F-Gases), used in today’s mobile air conditioning and refrigeration units, could realistically be banned across the EU by 2020, a new report says.

The Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences study ‘Availability of Low-GWP Alternatives to HFCs: Feasibility of an Early Phase-Out of HFCs by 2020’ contends that Hydrofluorocarbons (also called HFCs, the most common types of F-gas) could be replaced by energy efficient and climate friendly alternatives in 20 different industrial sectors within eight years.

“Banning the use of HFCs in new equipment could prevent the release of 600 million tonnes [of] C02-equivalent by 2030, more than the UK’s entire annual carbon emissions,” said Clare Perry, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA),  which sponsored the report. 

“At the same time, many of the alternatives are more energy-efficient than existing technologies,” she said. 

But in a reflection of accelerated lobbying by both environmentalists and industry ahead of imminent new EU F-Gas proposals, the report’s methodology was quickly challenged by Andrea Voigt, the director-general of the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE).  

The report “can hardly be called new,” Voigt said – as it relied on existing data from the European Commission – and she pointed instead to a report commissioned by EPEE and carried out by the French research bodies ERIE and ARMINES.    

“The results of this study clearly demonstrate that F-Gas emissions can be reduced significantly by at least 15% and up to at least 60% without the necessity of bans,” she told EURACTIV. The report was published in October 2011 but EPEE plan to release a follow-up study soon.

Fast-rising emissions

F-gases only make up 1%-2% of greenhouse gas emissions today, but that number is rising by some 8%-9% annually, and some scientific studies say that if nothing is done, they could account for between 9%-19% of all emissions by 2050.

The most widely-used F-gas, HFC 134a, is over a thousand times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

In 2006, the EU passed a regulation covering stationary air conditioning systems and a ‘Mac Directive’, phasing out some F-gases used in mobile air conditioning systems. 

Just last month, the EU sent a ‘reasoned opinion’ to Italy and Malta warning them they could face legal action if they fail to comply with their F-Gas obligations.

But an independent study commissioned as part of a review of the legislation, recently highlighted what it saw as several serious shortcomings in the existing statute.

F-Gas review

The EU is currently reviewing its F-Gas legislation and is expected to bring forward proposals for a new policy regime this autumn.

One of the key debates hinges on whether F-Gas-use should be capped and phased down – as favoured by the HFC industry – or whether ‘placing on the market prohibitions’ (POMs) should apply to those with the highest global warming potential (gwp).

The Karlsruhe study describes POM limitations and prohibitions as “very effective ways of reducing HFC emissions”.

But Voigt said that a phase down of F-Gases was already starting to happen “where it is technically feasible and where it makes sense from an energy efficiency and safety point of view.”

Industry figures also argue passionately that the costs involved in a revamp of existing refrigerants-use would be expensive and counter-productive.

In contrast, the Karlsruhe University report, which was authored by Professor Michael Kauffeld, a refrigeration technology expert, disagrees.

“While investment costs are often higher for alternatives to HFCs, these costs are often absorbed by lower running costs over the lifetime of the equipment,” it says.

“In addition these energy savings increase the amount of the total CO2 equivalent savings by 2%.”

Natural refrigerants

Fluorine-free ‘natural refrigerants’ such as Ammonia, CO2 and Propane are one alternative form of coolant. But alternative methods and processes – fibre insulation materials, dry powder asthma inhalers, and innovative building designs – are another.

The study says that “there is no single alternative that will replace HFCs in all applications”

Low-gwp alternatives to HFCs already account for over 90% of new domestic refrigerators and around 25% of new industrial air conditioners, according to the report.

”The EU has a fantastic opportunity, and a responsibility, to phase out the use of HFCs," Perry said. "There is simply no reason for new HFC equipment or products to be allowed on the market when efficient, safe and affordable alternatives are available.”

Unless CO2 emissions are reduced by 80-95% on 1990 levels by 2050, scientists believe that a catastrophic heating of the planet by over 2°C will be unavoidable this century. The contribution of F-gases to global warming is contested, but tangible.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that the built-up presence of F-gases in the atmosphere accounted for 17% of the total human contribution to climate change in 2005. F-gases are covered by the Kyoto Protocol, which commits the EU to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 8% between 2008 and 2012.

In 2006, an EU regulation on air conditioning systems and 'stationary' industrial applications tried to improve the containment of leaks, recovery of used equipment, labelling of products, reporting of emissions data to the EU and phasing out of some F-gases, such as SF6 (magnesium dye-casting). But its implementation was patchy.

A separate 'Mac Directive' in 2006  phased out F-gases with a global warming potential (gwp) of more than 150 for used in 'mobile' car air conditioning systems from 2017. The gwp scale measures greenhouse gas trapped in the atmosphere relative to a unit of carbon dioxide (standardised to 1). The directive also banned HFC-134a, which had a gwp of 1430 and led to an industry-wide shift to a less damaging HFC called1234yf, with a gwp of 4.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme described HFCs as the "low-hanging fruit in the climate change challenge". He added that "by some estimates, action to freeze and then reduce this group of gases could buy the world the equivalent of a decade's worth of CO2 emissions".

  • Autumn 2012: EU expected to announce new legislative proposals for F-gases after lengthy review of 2006 legislation.


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