At the end of February, the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) agreed to major amendments to the F-gas regulation – the EU legislation that controls emissions from fluorinated greenhouse gases.
If the changes are confirmed by the European Parliament, it will effectively see a phase-out of HFC refrigerants in some key HVAC&R equipment classes before 2030. As might be expected, this has provoked strong and often differing responses from stakeholders throughout Europe.
But what is the significance of the revision for those of us in the rest of the world? We asked two experts for their perspectives.
Europe’s big bet
All agree that the timetable is ambitious, but is it realistic?
According to Refrigerants Australia Executive Director Greg Picker, this is the $64 million question.
“European regulators have clearly signalled that they are trying to push the market to develop products in a new way,” he says. “But no one knows, even the regulators, whether or not it is possible to do this and do it safely and efficiently.”
Picker points out that a number of European industry associations have flagged what they see as a genuine risk, with potential negative consequences.
“Europe has targets for massive increases in heat pumps, like 30 million a year by the end of the decade,” he says. “That’s a massive amount of equipment that’s got to be manufactured, and produced – and adding redesign to that challenge as well really makes the task daunting.
“Some of it will be fine to use natural refrigerants, such as standalone hot water systems. But for other air-to-air-type heating applications, where you have split systems and the like, things get trickier. Is there going to be sufficiency of supply to enable that to happen? No one knows. And with everything going on with Russia and the transition away from gas, it’s a big question for Europe.
“Fundamentally, whether it’s going to work or not is a bet.”
Picker also believes that although Europe is in a position to make such a bet, that is not the case for other countries and regions.
“Europe is big enough to change the market, if it is possible to do so,” he says. “A country like Australia isn’t. We represent 0.5 per cent of the global market, so no one is going to build products specifically for us.
“What’s more, even if products are available in Europe in this timeframe, there’s no certainly about the cost or availability here. As people are looking at propane split system air conditioners there are likely to be transport issues, training and licensing issues, there are installation challenges. There may have to be secondary loop systems. So there’s a whole range of issues that we have to see how they play out, what the implications will be on cost, energy efficiency, safety and what is possible.
“I’m cautious because we have to recognise that there’s a balance here. Sure, we can build something that has potentially a lower degree of climate impact, but it has to be at a reasonable cost and with safety. If there are better things we can do in other sectors that aren’t as costly, we should probably do those first.
“That is why a country like Australia or New Zealand should have different policy approaches than an economy like Europe or the US, where it’s much bigger and can drive the industry.”
Picker also flags concerns with the Europe regulator’s seeming preference for a specific refrigerant.
“When you talk to the European regulator, they say very positive things about hydrocarbons. I would contend that it’s not a regulator’s job to choose the solution. It’s one thing to say, ‘This is the performance we want if it’s possible’, but they shouldn’t tell industry how to achieve that.
“And it’s worth pointing out that because the European system is so big and complicated, that consultation with industry about what’s possible happens very late in the process. So the European Commission is really reliant on a small number of consultants’ reports. From my perspective, that makes it a weaker system, because the government is not getting the benefit of a full range of advice, and I think that makes it challenging to develop policy.”
Another point that Picker says is often lost in the mix, is that the rules can only be enforced in countries where the local safety codes allow. Some European jurisdictions, for example, may not allow large charge sizes for flammable refrigerants in certain applications.
But despite the potential risks in the approach, Picker says that it could be beneficial for other jurisdictions, such asAustralia.
“We’re in a great situation,” he says, “because if those technologies are able to be deployed and they’re cost-effective and safe, then they’ll be successful in our marketplace too. If they’re not, thankfully we won’t have to pay the price of bad policy and regulation.
“Europe is boldly leading,” he says. “We’ll see if they’re brave or foolhardy over the next seven or eight years.”
Technically feasible and cost-effective
Clare Perry is Climate Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency – an international NGO that investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse – is more philosophical about the proposed revisions.
“The timeframes have been studied and proposed by the European Commission, and are considered technically feasible and cost-effective,” she says.
“Moreover, the proposal includes safety valves in case additional time is needed to fully implement bans. Of course, nothing is formally adopted at this stage, and we must wait for the European Parliament and council to negotiate the final version.”
Perry points out that the ENVI Committee of the European Parliament recently agreed several measures to ensure compatibility with increased heat pump deployment under the EU’s REPowerEU Plan. These include additional time for implementing bans, allowing the European Commission flexibility to respond to any unforeseen market disruptions, and financial support toward deployment of heat pumps relying on natural refrigerants and training of installers.
And according to Perry, Europe’s clear signal to the HVAC&R market is already being heeded.
“In Europe, manufacturers seem to be taking it seriously,” she says, “especially in hydronic heat pumps, with some big investments in new factories, such as Viessmann in Poland, and Daikin announcing they will launch a propane monobloc this year. Based on what is being presented at major trade shows, manufacturers are increasingly aware that natural refrigerants are the only sensible choice, particularly given the growing concern over PFAS contamination.”
Reports emerging from the ISH trade fair currently taking place in Nurnberg, Germany, indicate that more than 35 different companies showcased different kinds and capacities of heat pumps that rely on natural refrigerants for heating, cooling and domestic hot water.
“These include well-known corporations such as Bosch, Daikin, Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Mitsubishi, Viessmann, Vaillant, Nibe, Wolf, Midea and Clivet,” says Perry.
As for how the changes in Europe could affect other jurisdictions, Perry says that will depend on the final outcome of the negotiation.
“But it should help to stimulate the global market for clean, climate-friendly and future-proof cooling,” she says. “We would hope that it would build momentum for accelerating the global phase-down of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.”