The EU is drafting a proposal to phase down the use of HFC gases in refrigeration and air conditioning systems.
Many HFCs are very potent greenhouse gases, up to 20,000 times better per molecule at trapping the earth’s heat than carbon dioxide.
Ironically, HFCs, when they came on the market 20 years ago, were touted as saviours of the planet.
In the 1980s scientists discovered the ozone hole over the Antarctic.
Further, this hole had been caused by the depletion of ozone by chlorofluorocarbons, used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants.
The international community acted for once with a sense of great purpose and unity, and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 regulated the phaseout of CFCs.
It has arguably been the most successful environmental treaty ever, and the earth’s ozone layer is now reckoned to be recovering.
To replace the banned gases, in came the HFCs, which did no harm to the ozone layer.
But they were greenhouse gases (GHGs) just like CFCs, whose lingering presence in the atmosphere contributes 10 per cent of the overall warming caused by GHGs.
HFCs’ contribution is smaller than that, because they have been on the market for a shorter time.
But there is still a threat, says the Commission.
Albeit a small threat, for now: according to a report by the University of Karlsruhe, HFCs currently contribute to the global warming equivalent of 1 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions.
But emissions are growing from this small base, by up to 10 per cent a year.
At the same time, the world is acting on CO2.
The EU has pledged a 90 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2050.
In such a scenario, HFC emissions could make up a bigger proportion of GHG emissions by mid-century since other contributions would have dropped.
Car drivers in hot climates can relax, though; the EU is not banning air conditioning itself.
There are substitute refrigerants that can work with adaptation.
According to Michael Kauffeld, a professor of refrigeration technology at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, there are alternatives for HFCs as refrigerants.
Indeed, most new domestic refrigerators currently employ ‘low global warming’ substitutes.
But the figure varies widely from sector to sector.
For industrial air conditioning systems sold today, the figure is only 25 per cent.
Kauffeld maintains that the complete phaseout of HFCs is possible in 20 technology sectors by 2020.
The European Commission’s more modest aim is to cut HFC use in most applications to about a fifth of today’s output, with some specific bans such as the air conditioning units used in road vehicles and trains.
The Commission’s draft proposal is expected to be published in early November.
And it is likely to face strong opposition.
Scores of lobbyists from air conditioning manufacturers have signed up to the EU register of lobbyists in the last year, including representatives from each of the 14 European subsidiaries of the Japanese air conditioning giant Daikin.
They will be arguing that you have to look at safety, efficiency and cost considerations.
Some of the substitutes are flammable.
EPEE, the European association of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat pump manufacturers, points out that “many local and national building codes are still severely restricting the use of flammable and even mildly flammable substances”.
This, along with manufacturers’ liability, is one of the main barriers to change.
However, Kauffeld says you can design around these issues.
Another argument against new HFC rules may well be that unless the rest of the world cuts its HFC output too, there will be no point in Europe going it alone.
But in fact Connie Hedegaard, the Environment Commissioner, has pointed to the need for a global phasedown of HFC gases “as soon as possible” and hopes to work through the Montreal Protocol.