Parliament opts for containment on F-gases — reactions

The European Parliament has voted for containment measures to be imposed on the global warming F-gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning, thereby going against calls from its environment committee to impose strict bans.

EU Parliamentarians have opted for a containment policy to ease the impact of fluorinated gases on the earth’s warming climate and help the EU meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. 

Voting on 26 October in Strasbourg, the MEPs rejected earlier calls from colleagues led by Avril Doyle in the environment committee to impose gradual bans on most F-gases used in fridges, air conditioning systems and other so-called ‘stationary’ products (EURACTIV, 12 Oct. 2005).

On the most controversial issue – that of the legal base to be applied to the draft regulation -, MEPs have opted to ensure that the free circulation of goods in the EU internal market (Article 95 of the EC Treaty) prevails over environmental considerations (Article 175). 

Proponents of an internal market legal base – supported by F-gas manufacturers and the refrigeration industry – argued that priority should be given to product harmonisation in order to prevent companies having to adjust to several environmental standards as they do business across the EU.

Socialists and Green MEPs – supported by environmental NGOs – had started off a controversy saying countries which impose stricter controls – such as Denmark and Austria – should be allowed to continue doing so. They pointed out that, under internal market provisions, a single EU standard would apply which could force these countries to adapt to weaker environmental standards. 

But in the absence of a sufficient majority for a single legal base (whether environment or internal market), the double legal base agreed by EU ministers last year will continue to apply in the following way (EURACTIV, 15 Oct. 2004):

  • Internal market (Article 95) for placing on the market, use and controls including labelling which is now compulsory
  • Environment (Article 175) for monitoring, training and certification of workers, data on recovery and reporting
  • In line with the Council position last year, a ban will apply for uses where containment is deemed inappropriate (magnesium die-casting, vehicle tyres, windows, footwear, non-refillable containers, certain foams, self-chilling drinking cans, certain aerosols, new fire protection systems, fire extinguishers)

In addition, MEPs did decide to put an electronic register in place so that businesses (and SMEs in particular) can find their way in the maze of national legislations which are likely to result from the regulation. Indeed, a provision was added to allow member states to maintain or adopt stricter F-gas controls if these are in line with their national greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

Car air conditioning systems 

Parliamentarians have left virtually unchanged a proposal for phasing out F-gases used in car air conditioning systems:

  • As of 2011: Ban for F-gases with a global warming potential 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

European F-gas manufacturers represented by the EFCTC (European Fluorocarbons Technical Committee) have welcomed the vote as "good news". 

"It appears that the facts demonstrating the global benefit of HFCs, including their positive impact on the climate, have been taken into account," declared EFCTC Chairman Nick Campbell. EFCTC said the industry's priority now rests on improving HFC systems and "drive forward progress on containment" of F-gases. 

Refrigeration and air conditioning equipment manufacturers relying on HFCs described the vote as "a significant step forward in the fight against climate change".

"The European refrigeration and air conditioning industry is now ready to meet the challenge of practical emission reduction - via containment and monitoring - as endorsed by the Parliament today," said Friedrich Busch, Director General of the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE)

Busch added: "All additional bans would have been completely unrealistic. The phase-out dates and use restrictions were proposed without any serious prior impact assessment (of social, economic and safety feasibility and the total environmental impact including energy efficiency)".  

This view was supported by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas who told MEPs before the vote in Plenary that impact assessments should be carried out before taking a decision to ban products.

But the outcome infuriated Green MEPs in Parliament who said the rejection of bans were a gift to the chemical industry. 

"By voting against further restrictions on F-gases, MEPs have prioritised the interest of the chemicals industry over tackling climate change - and meeting our international legally-binding commitments to do so," said UK Green MEP Caroline Lucas

"Today's decision prevents EU members from taking concrete steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore it is decision which will contribute directly to climate change," she added. Dutch socialist MEP Dorette Corbey was of the same view: "It is not for the European Union to prevent the Member States pursuing ambitious environmental policies," she said.

Environmental campaigners are of the same opinion. "The Parliament has put the climate crisis second to the short-term, profit-driven interests of the chemicals industry", said Mahi Sideridou climate policy director at Greenpeace. Sideridou said MEPs "ignored evidence that alternatives to fluorinated gases are widely available and fully functional," including Greenpeace's own Greenfreeze technology.

On car air-conditioning, Greenpeace said the Parliament failed to improve provisions which allow for the use of some F-gases until 2017. "For every year that the phase-out of fluorinated gases in cars is delayed, around 40 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are emitted," Greenpeace says. According to Greenpeace, this is equivalent to Portugal's 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use.

MIPIGGs, a UK NGO campaigning against F-gases, declared before the vote that Europe should lead in reducing F-gases. "Hydrocarbons, ammonia, water based systems and other technologies can be used now and eliminate the F-gas risk entirely," said MIPIGGs coordinator Chris Rose.

Rose points to a report by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), which claims that a US F-gas lobby led by EPEE and F-gas producers Honeywell and DuPont "was able to influence the European Commission to adopt an Internal market legal basis for its proposal". 

Fluorinated gases (hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, perfluorocarbons or PFCs and sulphur hexafluoride or SF6) were introduced in the nineties to replace CFCs and HCFCs, as those substances were blamed for depleting the earth's ozone layer. 

F-gases represent only about 2% of EU-15 emissions of all greenhouse gases, including CO2. However, the Commission estimates their global warming potential (GWP) to be as much as "23,900 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2)" in the case of SF6. 

If no action is taken, emissions of F-gases in EU-15 are expected to grow dramatically, "from 65.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1995 to 98 million tonnes in 2010," according to the Commission.

  • 2 December 2005: Environment Council to discuss the amended texts. They could be definitely approved if the ministers leave them untouched
  • Before end 2008: Commission to table new legislative proposals for non-vehicle air conditioning systems and refrigeration systems in transport

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