ICI rapped over claims for new refrigerant

The environmental credentials of one of the gases touted as a substitute for the ozone-depleting CFCs have been placed under the microscope through the unlikely route of an advertisement placed in the House of Commons' weekly magazine by its manufacturer, ICI. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has just upheld four out of five complaints brought by Greenpeace against ICI's claims.

The chemical in question, HFC-134a, has been developed by several CFC producers as an "ozone-friendly" replacement in applications ranging from refrigerants for supermarket cabinets and domestic refrigerators to automobile and other air-conditioning units. ICI is one of the world's largest producers of HFC-134a under the brand name Klea.

ICI has been keen to divert attention from Greenpeace's campaign. Though not an ozone depleter, the chemical is thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Greenpeace is urging refrigerator producers and major users to switch instead to older coolants such as propane/ butane mixtures or ammonia. Earlier this year, three German firms announced plans to produce refrigerators with propane/ butane as the coolant (ENDS Report 218, p 23 ). And another German company, the retailer Edeka, is installing an ammonia-based refrigeration system in a new store (see pp 9-10 ).

ICI placed its advertisement in "The House", a weekly Commons magazine read widely by MPs and their researchers, just before Ministers were due to take part in international negotiations on the ozone layer in Copenhagen last November. The advertisement paints the development of Klea 134a as an unqualified British success story. It also seeks to refute Greenpeace's campaign with counter-claims concerning the "real" impact of the gas on global warming. It is these which are the subject of the ASA's ruling.

  • ICI claimed that "the new fluorocarbons will be produced in such small quantities...that it is calculated they will never contribute more than one per cent to the total manmade greenhouse effect." But the ASA agreed with Greenpeace that ICI could not possibly determine the potential size of the greenhouse effect, and moreover was basing its claim on only one of six scenarios about future consumption of chemicals such as HFC-134a in last year's report from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

  • The advertisement also stated that "the really important point is that the global warming contribution of refrigeration equipment is largely from the electricity it consumes. Thus 98% of the global warming from a refrigerator comes from the electricity it burns, not from the refrigerant sealed inside it."

    The ASA upheld Greenpeace's complaint that the claim could only be justified for domestic refrigerators, but ICI's advertisement did not specify that it was referring just to these. It also employed the global warming effect figure calculated for HFC-134a over a 500-year timescale, which is much lower than in the short term.

    Commercial-scale refrigerators would be likely to use far greater amounts of HFC-134a, and their contribution to global warming via leaks and emissions during maintenance is much higher - especially if a mediumrather than long-term global warming effect figure is employed.

  • ICI also claimed that "Klea 134a is at least as energy efficient as any other alternative likely to be commercially available in the foreseeable future." However, the ASA agreed with Greenpeace that refrigerators using propane/butane coolants are already commercially available, and several producers believe that these could eventually be as energy-efficient as those using HFC-134a. Therefore ICI could not reasonably make the unequivocal it claim it did.

  • The fourth complaint upheld by the ASA concerned ICI's statement that "if refrigerant recycling and recovery programmes such as ICI's are used, there need be no emissions in any case." Greenpeace countered that recycling schemes for CFCs have performed poorly (ENDS Report 219, p 14 ), and that in any event refrigerant would still be lost through leaks and during servicing. ICI's defence was that it had been referring solely to domestic refrigerators, but the ASA ruled that it should have specified this, and even then "it was incorrect to imply that emissions could be totally eliminated."

  • The one complaint that the ASA did not uphold concerned ICI's statement that "the direct global warming effect of Klea 134a is 90% less than that of the CFCs it replaces." Greenpeace argued that, since ICI had relied once again on the global warming effect of HFC-134a over 500 years, it should have specified this. For example, in the next 20 years, the effect of HFC-134a is likely to be only 56% less than that of CFCs. However, the ASA ruled that the statement would have been read in the context of long-term rather than short-term global warming, although "the copy would have benefitted from an explicit indication of the timescale used."

    ICI has refused to roll over and accept the ASA's verdict. It has now circulated a modified version of the advertisement with the offending phrases deleted and qualifications such as "domestic" inserted in the appropriate place, claiming that the changes are "trivial".

    More seriously, the company has written to MPs saying that the ASA based its judgements on flawed scientific advice from a consultancy.

    It is understood that the ASA was indeed provided with outdated and flawed information. However, a spokeswoman told ENDS that the defects in the consultancy's report had been recognised, and that it was made clear to ICI that the ASA would not be using it in its deliberations. Moreover, the ASA then took advice from the Meteorological Office before arriving at its adjudication.

    Greenpeace, meanwhile, remains unhappy about the ASA's verdict. It feels that ICI should have been compelled to state the timescale on which it bases any future claims about the global warming effect of HFC-134a. And it is annoyed that ICI is seeking to disparage the ASA's adjudication on the false basis of the faulty consultant's report.

    The group has some reason to feel aggrieved, given that in June 1990 it complained about ICI advertisements making similar claims for Klea 134a. In that case the ASA failed to respond at all. But in September 1990 its Director-General Matti Alderson wrote to Greenpeace expressing "dismay" that the office had not taken action on "what appeared to be a well-founded and valid objection."

    However, the ASA felt it was too late to take action three months after the advertisement had appeared, but said it had requested ICI "to seek advice from this office before placing similar advertisements in the future." The request plainly failed to have the desired effect.

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