Europe’s climate revolution with natural refrigerants

A quiet but crucial climate battle is being fought in Europe: the regulation of fluorinated gases (f-gases). Speeding up the phase-out of these potent greenhouse gases could deliver the most important climate victory of the decade and, at the same time, wean the European heat pump market from its dependence on China.

Davide Sabbadin and Alberto Vela report. This article was originally published in Euractiv.

While the name hardly rings a bell, fluorinated gases are ubiquitous in several key aspects of our daily lives.

These man-made refrigerant gases are used to produce, import and preserve our food; heat and cool our homes and offices; transport the energy we consume; insulate our buildings with foams; and preserve our medicines and vaccines.

When f-gases burst onto the market, they did it to replace their ozone-depleting predecessor substances which got banned by the Montreal Protocol. But while they can be used to provide cooling without damaging the ozone layer, they do warm the atmosphere.

As potent greenhouse gases, f-gases global warming potential can be 25,000 times greater than CO2. A mass destruction climate bomb.

To continue protecting the ozone layer without aggravating the climate crisis, global leaders amended the Montreal Protocol in 2016 to include a phase-down of f-gases.

Named after the city in which it was signed, Kigali (Rwanda), the new treaty agreed to an 80% f-gas reduction over 30 years.

Achieving this decline will prevent a rise of 0.5° C in global temperature by the end of the century. Hardly any other climate action can deliver such sharp results.

For decades, the European Union has boasted the most ambitious f-gases policy in the world. Thanks to the EU F-gas regulation, fluorinated gas emissions have been falling every year since 2015 in the bloc. However, science urges policymakers to go even further and faster.

Time is not on our side and the ongoing revision of the regulation could deliver a significant blow to these climate-destroying substances.

EU institutions enter the final round of negotiations for the F-gas phase out and the swords are flying high.

On one side, the European Parliament aims to accelerate the phase-out of f-gases with deeper cuts from 2024 onwards, in order to bring the EU in line with its 2030 climate targets and the Montreal agreement.

On the other side, some industries have strongly opposed reducing f-gases at such speed, with the European Heat Pump Association leading the block against it.

Heat pumps, as highly energy-efficient appliances capable of both heating and cooling our homes without relying on fossil fuels, are great allies of the green transition. Their over-dependence on global warming fluorinated gases is their only major problem.

An issue that the EU regulation could fix by pushing the market towards more climate-friendly alternatives already produced in Europe.

Strategic independence

F-gases are produced by a handful of multinational companies, most of them based outside the EU.

In fact, foreign manufacturers of heat pumps have been at the forefront of lobbying to weaken the European Parliament’s position on the f-gas file.

But even if fluorinated gases were manufactured in Europe, EU states would still heavily rely on imports. F-gases depend on a key raw material, fluorspar, whose production is in the hands of China and some other foreign suppliers.

It is clear that the use of f-gases in the growing heat pump market clashes with the EU’s strategy of increasing independence in critical raw materials and luring green industry to Europe. It will actually lock one of Europe’s most promising ‘clean industries’ into China’s trade clutches.

If Europe has learned anything from the tragic experiences of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, it is the need to shorten production chains and increase self-sufficiency.

With the quick phase-out of f-gases proposed by the EU Parliament, the European heat pump industry faces a golden opportunity to become fully independent: the quick uptake of natural refrigerants (such as hydrocarbons, ammonia and CO2) — which have low global warming potential and can be entirely produced in the EU.

Right moment, right pace

Some argue that the transition to natural refrigerants would be too swift. But this shift comes at the right time and speed, for both the planet and the EU’s strategic interests.

Brussel’s plans to install 30 million heat pumps this decade to reduce fossil gas consumption can be a double-edged sword if operated on fluorinated gases.

Hence, the rapid growth of heat pumps must be matched by a sharp decrease in fluorinated gases, as the only way to avoid jeopardising our own climate efforts or shackling us further to China.

Natural refrigerants are even natural allies to high-temperature heat pumps, one of Europe’s soon-to-be popular decarbonisation solutions due to their ability to deliver efficiency and comfort even without renovations.

With Europe’s rally call against fossil fuel dependency in support of an efficiency facelift for buildings across the continent, these heat pumps and free of the f-bomb are set to play a central role.

As for the feasibility of change, key industrial actors have shown signs of readiness despite the noise.

“For the residential market, it’s absolutely clear that we don’t need f-gases anymore”, said Ingo Seliger, representative of German heat pump manufacturer Viessmannalready in January 2023.

Fast progress on f-gas limitation has also allowed Europe to consolidate its leadership in the production of natural-based solutions worldwide. Thanks to the bans on a type of f-gas with a high global-warming potential (HFCs) introduced in the first F-Gas Regulation, natural alternatives (like CO2 and HCs) are today the mainstream refrigerants used in the commercial sector, such as supermarkets, across the EU.

At that time, some industry players also raised a hue and cry against this legislative step.

Amidst the global dash for net-zero economies and industries, the EU must consolidate its current leadership with bold policies and cutting-edge climate solutions.

Europe might have missed other important trains in the ongoing transition such as solar panels manufacturing, but the bloc now holds the golden ticket for the one for climate-friendly heat pumps -running on natural refrigerants- and it cannot stumble now.