June 5. 2023. 5:13

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EU Parliament votes for quick phase-out of planet warming F-gases

The European Parliament has adopted its position on the phase-out of F-gases, opting for a faster pathway, much to the consternation of business groups who are now turning to EU countries still deliberating their position.

Heat pumps, which concentrate ambient heat using refrigerants and electricity, are a key technology to decarbonise household heating, which currently relies on fossil fuels such as natural gas.

The main refrigerants used today in heat pumps are fluorinated gases – or F-gases, in short.

F-gases were introduced in the 1990s to replace the ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which were being phased out.

However, they have a high impact on the climate, being up to 24,000 times more damaging than CO2. Overall, F-gases are estimated to be responsible for 2.5% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“F-gases are an invisible threat to our climate and undermine our efforts to stop global warming,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green lawmaker leading the Parliament’s position on the proposal, who spoke after the vote on Thursday (30 March).

His approach to swiftly crack down on F-gases was very much welcomed by the hemicycle.

426 lawmakers voted in favour, 109 against and 52 abstained – providing Eickhout with a strong majority ahead of final negotiations with the 27 EU member states represented in the Council of the EU. This means that Eickhout’s initial deal from early March passed without major changes.

As of 2024, only 23.6% of the amount of F-gases used in 2015 will be allowed on the market, Parliament decided. From 2027, this will go down to 11%, before steadily approaching zero by 2050 on a sloped trajectory.

The biggest cuts will be made from 2024 onwards, in order to bring the EU in line with its 2030 climate goals and the Montreal agreement on F-gases.

One successful amendment, introduced by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), was to relax rules on repairing existing systems running on F-gases. Extra costs from replacing damaged air conditioners and the like “could be averted by preserving the status quo,” said the Bavarian EPP lawmaker Markus Ferber.

F-gases, while useful to industry for their non-conducive nature and their ability to transport heat, are not irreplaceable.

“In most instances, natural alternatives are readily available,” Eickhout said. These alternatives – be it propane or CO2 – do not significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect.

The 27 EU countries have yet to adopt a joint position, which would then pave the way for final negotiations between Parliament and Council. This has provided another time window for lobbyists, whose efforts to shape the law have been intensive.

“The lobbying on this dossier was unprecedented,” the Dutch lawmaker warned.

Heat pump makers worried by EU crackdown on climate-warming F-gases

The European Parliament’s environment committee voted on Wednesday (1 March) for a quick phasedown of F-gas refrigerants, in a move that drew criticism from the heat pump industry.

Intense foreign industry lobbying

Foreign manufacturers of heat pumps and air conditioners relying on F-gases have been at the forefront of lobbying against a crackdown on the refrigerant.

“Lobbyists from American and Japanese companies have been flooding MEPs with e-mails to weaken the proposal. My advice: Do not listen to them,” Eickhout told his colleagues ahead of the vote.

As late as on Tuesday, shortly before the vote, lawmakers were urged to water down the law by a coalition of 14 industry associations, including the European Heat Pump Alliance and the European farmer’s association Copa-Cogeca.

EU lawmakers “must avoid stifling clean heating,” EHPA said, calling for a slowed phase-out of F-gases in the 2020s. Otherwise, some types of heat pumps would already be banned from 2026, the industry group argued.

The European FluoroCarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), an association representing producers of F-gases, said it was “disappointed by the amendments adopted by the European Parliament.”

The producers, whose business is quite literally at risk, warn that the “transition to non-fluorinated industrially produced alternatives may result in risks primarily in the area of safety …, such as high-density buildings.” The statement refers to the flammability of alternatives like propane, an explosive gas commonly used for heating and powering appliances like stoves, barbeques, or water heaters.

Some concern came from electrical companies, too. F-gases, and their ability to block electrical flows, make them an important component for the manufacturing of electric switches.

For high voltage applications, a model by German company Siemens is the only product which doesn’t contain F-gases, prompting concerns over the availability of alternatives and their compatibility with existing set-ups, according to sources familiar with the matter.

But Eickhout, and a majority of EU lawmakers, see things differently.

The rules would be beneficial to European companies, he argued. “Many European companies are already at the forefront of this development [away from F-gases] and will benefit from it,” he stressed.

His centre-right German colleague Peter Liese had a similar position. “The good thing is that there is essentially no conflict between environmental and industrial interests here,” he said.

“German companies like Siemens or the German heating manufacturers are already supplying the alternatives,” the German lawmaker stressed, adding that “the only disadvantage” could be for “Japanese and American manufacturers” who are less advanced when it comes to developing alternatives.

Viessmann, a German heat pump manufacturer, welcomed the vote.

“The industry transition is already in full-swing: Many manufacturers from across the EU – including Viessmann – rely on environmentally friendly natural refrigerants and are investing heavily in new models and expansion of production capacities,” said Alix Chambris, vice president of global public affairs and sustainability at the German heat pump maker.

Battle for dominance in heat pump markets reaches Europe

Heat pumps, considered crucial to climate-neutral heating, are another industrial sector in which nations compete over leadership. The EU learnt a harsh lesson from the loss of its solar industry, can it avoid a repeat of history?

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