Tensions rise over EU refrigerant transition

Debate is intensifying in Europe over the future of HFCs as the European Union eyes stricter limits on the global warming potential of refrigerants, and manufacturers push back on the proposed switch to hydrocarbons.

The European Union (EU) is in the process of reviewing its F-Gas Regulation, which provides a roadmap for phasing down fluorinated gases such as HFCs, and meeting targets for emissions reductions. As part of the European Green Deal, the EU has raised its climate ambition, and committed to net greenhouse gas emission reductions of at least 55 per cent by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2050. This means the F-Gas Regulation must be revised with more ambitious targets.

“The question is not whether we need to do this,” says Deputy Director General for Climate Action Clara de la Torre, “but how we can do it best.”

As part of this work, the EU conducted a stakeholder workshop earlier this month where it considered a briefing paper produced by UK global strategic engineering and environmental consultancy Ricardo, and German environmental research institution Öko Recherche. The paper looks at all aspects of the regulation, including how Europe’s HVAC&R workforce can support the transition, and import rules for fluorinated gases. But it is the proposals for greater restrictions on high-GWP refrigerants that have sparked the most controversy.

One of the proposals in the paper is a ban on HFCs with a GWP of 750 or more in new stationary air conditioning and also in heat pump equipment with a capacity of over 12kW. This would effectively ban R410A, creating a particular challenge for larger VRF systems.

Also proposed is a ban on the use of HFCs with a GWP of 150 or more in stationary air conditioning and in heat pump equipment below 12kW. This would rule out R32 as an option for most split systems, with a move to hydrocarbons being mooted as the alternative. The study predicts that hydrocarbons could be used in up to 90 per cent of small heat pumps as of 2025, and in all large split air conditioners and VRFs as of 2030.

But Eurovent – a European HVAC&R organisation primarily consisting of manufacturers – has labelled the modelling “completely unrealistic”. It claims the study does not reflect current data on market penetration of non-fluorinated refrigerants. Eurovent also notes that the study consultant has not considered the regulatory and standardisation barriers that still prevent flammable refrigerants from being used in heating and air conditioning equipment in many places and applications. The organisation says it fears the review study will lead to unfeasible amendments to the F-Gas Regulation.

“Facilitating the transition to lower-GWP refrigerants is one of Eurovent’s core ambitions and, in this context, we have always been big advocates of the F-Gas Regulation,” says Eurovent Deputy Secretary General Francesco Scuderi. “With the review ongoing, we have been working closely together with European Commission and the study consultants to see how to further improve the current framework.

“That said, we are puzzled by the preliminary findings of the review study. Except for the commercial refrigeration sector, where non-fluorinated refrigerants already represent a preponderance of new products brought to the market, we see no realistic pathway from the current situation to the substitution milestones that were conjured up by the models. The study puts the global competitiveness of our industry on shaky grounds, which would be a big win for fossil fuels.”

Eurovent has submitted its concerns to the European Commission and study consultants, and is working with partner associations to mobilise a common industry response. The European Commission is expected to conduct its review of the F-Gas Regulation by the end of 2021.

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