DEFRA casts doubt on phase-out of HFCs in car air conditioning

Proposals by the European Commission to prohibit the use of the common refrigerant HFC-134a in vehicle air conditioning may not be cost-effective, the Environment Department has suggested.1 However, the UK appears to be toying with a tougher line on the use of fluorinated gases in some other sectors, including the magnesium casting industry.

In August, the Commission published a draft Regulation setting out plans to curb emissions of the three fluorinated gases covered by the Kyoto Protocol - HFCs, PFCs and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) (ENDS Report 342, pp 58-59 ).

The proposal would introduce a general obligation to take all technically feasible and cost-effective measures to minimise emissions of fluorinated gases, with specific controls on their containment, use, recovery and marketing in certain applications. It is expected to reduce the EU's greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 by some 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2e) - roughly 7% of the saving needed to meet the bloc's Kyoto target.

DEFRA is now consulting on the likely impact of the proposal in the UK. It is seeking views on the scope of the proposal, the potential for technical or capacity problems in recovery or disposal, and the impact on particular sectors.

The "novelty aerosol" industry faces a ban on the use of fluorinated gases, and DEFRA is keen to explore the technical feasibility of alternatives and the potential impacts of a ban on fluorinated gases. Products under threat include artificial snow, stink bombs, "silly string", noise horns and imitation excrement - suggesting that office parties may never be the same.

A less trivial issue is the impact on vehicle manufacturers. The Commission is proposing a ban on refrigerants with a high global warming potential - most notably HFC-134a - in new mobile air conditioning units between 2009 and 2014, underpinned by a transferable quota system. Before 2009, strict leakage requirements would apply.

Vehicle manufacturers have been battling against the proposed phase-out (ENDS Report 340, pp 35-36 ) - and have now received some backing from DEFRA.

A partial regulatory impact assessment concludes that the phase-out of HFC-134a would not be cost-effective. The analysis compares the annualised cost with the cumulative emission reduction over the 20 years from 2025 rather than 2010, on the grounds that the benefits of many of the measures will not be felt immediately.

The Government uses an illustrative damage cost of £70 per tonne of carbon within a range of £35 to £140 - although the figures are currently under review. DEFRA concludes that, at least in the lower half of this price range, the annualised costs of the Commission's proposal on mobile air conditioning significantly outweigh the annualised benefits.

DEFRA suggests that the cost-effectiveness of the package could be significantly boosted by dropping the prohibition on HFC-134a in favour of obligatory use of "enhanced", low-leakage HFC-134a systems from 2009. This would carry an annualised cost of £31.4-35.8 million, reducing the potential upper bound cost for the sector by up to 80%.

The cost-effectiveness of action in other sectors is more clear cut (see table). Particularly significant, relatively low cost savings are available in the fluorocarbon manufacturing industry and refrigeration and air conditioning sectors.

DEFRA also considers that options for securing further reductions in SF6 emissions may be available in the magnesium industry. The Commission intends to prohibit the use of more than 500 kilograms per year of the gas in magnesium die-casting operations. However, the consultation paper suggests that removing the threshold could be cost-effective, as could extending the ban to all magnesium casting operations.

Another cost-effective option would be to prohibit the use of HFCs in domestic refrigerators. UK manufacturers have already moved to hydrocarbon refrigerants and blowing agents, so the impact would be restricted to imports of larger American refrigerators which have a market share of just 3%.

The consultation suggests that the Commission's package could reduce the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 86mtCO2 in the years between 2005 and 2025.

DEFRA points out that a range of existing measures to reduce emissions are included in its baseline - from voluntary measures to the treatment requirements of EU Directives on waste electrical and electronic equipment and end of life vehicles.

Indeed, the consultation assumes that the Commission's proposal would require no additional action from the aluminium and semiconductor sectors, which already have significant emission reduction programmes in place. However, a recent report for DEFRA suggested that the semiconductor sector's move away from HFCs has been achieved by a partial switch to nitrogen trifluoride - an even more potent, though currently unregulated, greenhouse gas (ENDS Report 346, pp 10-11 ).

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