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F-gases: good for the ozone layer, bad for the climate

The EU is taking steps to reduce the use of fluorinated gases (F-gases). F-gases have replaced ozone-destroying substances, but as potent greenhouse gases they contribute significantly to global warming.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered that the earth’s protective ozone layer was thinning, raising the risk of skin cancer and cataracts. The culprits were chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), chemical substances widely used in spray cans, refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, and heretofore considered as safe because they are non-toxic, not inflammable and not explosive.

The international community reacted quickly and adopted the Montreal protocol in 1987, which phases out ozone-destroying substances. However, it turns out that the F-gases which replace CFCs contribute to global warming, having a global warming potential up to 23 000 times higher than CO2. F-gases account for around 2% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

F-gas emissions EU27

Emissions of F-gases in the EU27 (1990-2010) in million tonnes CO2e (Source: EEA)

The worldwide use of F-gases has grown rapidly and reached almost 500 million tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) in 2005. The rapid growth is expected to continue with growing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning, especially in developing countries. By 2050, F-gases could account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Refrigerant leaks in mobile air conditioning systems are common and hard to prevent. To reduce the climate impacts from air condition in vehicles, the Mobile Air Conditioning (MAC) Directive requires that new cars be equipped with air conditioning systems that use more climate-friendly refrigerants. However,  Mercedes-Benz recently discovered that the relatively climate-friendly refrigerant R1234xy can catch fire in a car crash. The company intends to continue using HFC-134a, whose global warming potential 1320 times higher than CO2, and risks infringement proceedings for violation of the MAC Directive.

F-gas emissions curve

Projections for global f-gas emissions 2005-2050. Source: Umweltbundesamt

On the international level, negotiations continue. In November 2012, F-gases were on the agenda of the Montreal protocol meeting, but no agreement was reached. Some delegates argued that climate-damaging F-gases are outside the mandate of the Montreal protocol, which is concerned with ozone-depleting substances.

Developing countries can receive UN carbon credits for the destruction of HFC-23, a potent greenhouse gas. However, this provision has been exploited by some companies to receive tradable carbon credits by producing and destroying additional quantities of HFC-23. The UN climate negotiations in December 2012 did not come to a conclusion on this issue. The EU Emissions Trading System will stop accepting UN carbon credits from HFC-23 projects from January 2013.

In its resolution of 14 September 2011 on climate-relevant non-CO2 emissions, the EP considers the 2006 F-gas regulation as ineffective and calls for its revision. In November 2012, the Commission proposed a new F-gas regulation which phases out some f-gases with very high climate impact and limits the production and use of others. These limits aim at reducing the supply of F-gases in the EU by 2030 to 21% of today’s levels.

The refrigeration industry welcomes the proposed regulation while environmental groups find it lacking in ambition and denounce the influence of lobbyists.

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