F-gases still a problem

SF6-encapsuled high voltage switch matrix. Photo: Ze Clou / flickr.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The production of fluorinated greenhouse gases in the EU has decreased in terms of tonnage, but since the proportion of gases with the highest global warming potentials (GWP) simultaneously has increased there is no reduction in the overall climate impact.

In accordance with the F-gas regulation ((EC) No 842/2006)), all companies producing, importing or exporting more than one tonne of fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gases) must report quantities and intended applications to the European Environment Agency (EEA).  In 2011, 120 companies submitted their reports, which was 12 per cent more than in the previous year. 1

In all three categories reported the amount of F-gases, measured in tonnes, had decreased: production (-5%), import (-6%) and intra-EU sales (-12%). But the different F-gases differ greatly when it comes to GWP, for example the hydrofluorocarbon HFC-134a has a GWP of 1,430 compared to sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), which has a GWP of 22,800 (GWP calculated over 100 years). Re-calculated in carbon dioxide equivalents, the result is somewhat different, production increased slightly (+1%), while imports and intra-EU sales are still decreasing (-8% and -11%).

Over the five years for which data has been reported, no discernible trends can be seen. The use of F-gases appears to be relatively stable, which is of great concern at a time when all greenhouse gases must be reduced. If we look back instead over the last twenty years, there is even more reason to worry. Between 1990 and 2010 emissions from the consumption of HFCs increased by 82.3 million tonnes of CO2-equivalents, which makes this the category of greenhouse gas emissions that increased the second most in absolute terms, only beaten by CO2 emissions from road transport. 2

The use of HFCs for cooling (refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners) is the most common application for F-gases, when it comes to quantity (62%), but also in terms of climate impact (57%). SF6 is used as an insulating medium in electrical equipment and in terms of quantity it only accounts for two per cent of F-gases, but because of its very high GWP, the use of SF6 in electronics is the application with the second largest climate impact (21%).

In June, six environmental NGOs demanded that climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard should propose a ban on all use of SF6.3 A newly published report shows that there are cost-effective alternatives to all common applications.4  Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director for EEA argues along the same lines:

“For certain applications, viable alternatives to F-gases already exist. This makes them an ideal candidate to replace with less harmful alternatives, in order to limit the growth of emissions.”
The EU Commission intends to put forward a proposal on further measures to reduce F-gases at the end of this year.

Kajsa Lindqvist

1)  Fluorinated greenhouse gases 2011, EEA Technical report No 12/2012, 
2 ) Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory 1990–2010 and inventory report 2012, EEA Technical report No 3/2012
3)  EEB press release 26 June 2012
4) Cost-effective SF6-free options available for switchgear – Validation of recent studies for the European Commission. By Jos Benner, Marit van Lieshout and Harry Croezen.

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