Europe Greens Paint, Rejects Tough Refrigerant Controls

STRASBOURG, France, April 1, 2004 (ENS) - In a move to cut air pollution across Europe, the European Union has adopted new legislation that will reduce the quantity of dangerous solvents in paints, varnishes and car repair products.

The European Parliament Tuesday unanimously agreed to support the European Commission and the Council of Ministers' proposal for the new legislation, which will cut emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from these products. VOCs are components of ground level ozone, or smog.


Lines are painted on the A1 roadway in Northumberland, England. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Implementation of the law in a two step phased in process will reduce the emissions of VOCs from paints and varnishes and products for vehicle repairs in the present 15 current EU member states by around 280,000 metric tons per year by 2010.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said, "The EU legislation adopted today means that paints will become safer and better for the environment. Greening our paints is not a question of color, but of reducing the content of dangerous solvents they contain. This is an important contribution to improving air quality in all member states."

But the European parliament on Wednesday rejected calls to strengthen controls on fluorinated climate gases, or f-gases, pleasing the refrigeration industry and fluorocarbon makers and disappointing environmental groups.

As passed by Parliament at first reading the draft EU law remains based on containment of fluorinated industrial gases, also called f-gases, rather than on their replacement.

The fluorinated industrial gases - hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorinated carbons (PFCs) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) - are widely used in refrigerators, air conditioning, thermal insulation and medical sprays. The gases are fluorinated for low toxicity and low flammability, and harmlessness to the ozone layer. They do not deplete the ozone layer because they contain no chlorine.

HFCs are replacing chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) - ozone depleting gases that are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol.

But the high global warming potential of these gases has raised environmental concerns, and the three gases were included in the basket of six greenhouse gases governed by the Kyoto Protocol, together with carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O).

Parliament voted to place no limits on the use of f-gases in stationary commercial, domestic or industrial air conditioning or refrigeration, and rejected an environmental legal base for the law. In addition, the MEPs voted to remove the obligation to recover foams containing f-gases from old fridges.


Fluorinated industrial gases are used to cool refrigerators as replacements for gases that deplete the ozone layer. (Photo courtesy USEPA)
All these measures were suggested by Parliament's Environment Committee two weeks ago, but the f-gas industry objected because they went against the original approach of emission reduction through containment.

Anti-HFC gas campaign group MIPIGGS described the vote as a "disastrous step backwards," weakening "even what little the Environment Committee achieved" earlier this month.

MIPIGGS stands for Multisectorial Initiative on Potent Industrial Greenhouse Gases - it includes groups such as Friends of the Earth, Climate Action Europe, Greenpeace, SustainAbility, the Danish Technology Institute, and Media Natura as well as individual scientists. The group favors the use of

MIPIGGS did approve of the Parliament's restrictions on sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Enclosed in electrical equipment, SF6 is a gaseous dielectric that allows for the safe transmission and distribution of electricity. Yet, when SF6 is released to the atmosphere, it is a persistent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. It is one of the six gases limited by the Kyoto Protocol.

On the draft law's key proposal to phase out HFCs in vehicle air conditioning systems, parliament supported an Environment Committee recommendation and ditched a complex quota system proposed by the European Commission in favor of a phased ban.

But MEPs pushed back by two years to 2011 the point at which the ban will begin to affect newly approved models. The ban would apply to all new cars from 2014. This was too soon for the industry and too late for the environmentalists.

The auto industry was pleased. "This is good for us - we've got what we wanted," a car industry source told Environment Daily.

Environmentalists were disappointed. "Lots of industry is ready to go with HFC free technologies. Now the parliament is saying there's another seven years where nothing needs to happen," said Jason Anderson of the environmental group Climate Action Network.

MIPIGGS favors carbon dioxide based refrigerants for mobile and stationary uses. HFCs were first used in vehicle air conditioning market in the early 1990s. The one that is currently used, HFC-134a, has a global warming potential 1,300 times that of carbon dioxide.

Parliament also voted to include a requirement that car air conditioning must use gases with a global warming potential of under 50. "If this measure survives the Council, MIPIGGS said in a statement, "HFC 152a will be eventually ruled out, effectively in favor of CO2 [carbon dioxide] technologies. Ministers will need to resist pressure from the U.S. car manufacturers on this."


MEP Robert Goodwill of Yorkshire, England is a member of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, and serves on the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy. (Photo courtesy Office of the MEP)
F-gas makers' group the European Fluorocarbon Technical Committee (EFCTC) praised the "reasonable approach" of parliament's rapporteur for the draft law MEP Robert Goodwill.

Nick Campbell, chairman of EFCTC, said, "For many applications vital to our daily life, these gases are the most energy efficient solution and therefore advantageous also from the climate impact perspective."

Governments and industry generally see HFCs as the best alternative for use in metered dose inhalers, insulation, refrigeration, air conditioning, technical aerosols, and fire extinguishers. They are viewed as energy efficient, low in toxicity, cost effective and safe to use.

Campbell said, "Clearly, without HFCs, not only the objectives of the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer would be missed, but also the chance for a significant contribution to a net decrease of the climate impact of systems and applications where these gases are used."

In Brussels, the pro-HFC refrigeration industry group European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), said it "broadly welcomed" the outcome of the parliamentary vote. EPEE represents businesses involved in the development and manufacture of equipment which relies on HFCs as a refrigerant.

EPEE welcomed parliament's rejection of a ban on HFCs in a wide range of refrigeration and air conditioning applications, such as domestic and commercial refrigeration and stationary air conditioning.

Such a use ban would have been the wrong approach, EPEE said, because it would have condemned the use of HFCs in too many applications, such as services cabinets used in drink dispensers, freezers, food storage, medical chillers.

"Such a use ban would have had a disproportionate impact on the refrigeration and air-conditioning sector compared to the potential savings in greenhouse gas emissions," the industry group said.

MIPIGGS charged that the European Parliament had "surrendered to the wishes of the American dominated HFC industry," and has "thrown away the promise for European environmental technology."

"Only the Council of Ministers meeting on June 28 and 29 now offer any real hope of remedying this serious setback for Europe's obligations under the Kyoto Protocol," the group said.

The next European parliamentary election is scheduled for June 10, 2004 and will, for the first time, include the 10 new accession countries. The new European Parliament, influenced by new accession countries, "is unlikely to improve the regulation when it finally returns there for a Second Reading," MIPIGGS predicted.

{ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report.}