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Report Highlights Trafficking of Refrigerants

Discontinued Gas Products Still Flowing into Europe 


Junked refrigerators.  ©Pam Walker68/istock
Junked refrigerators. ©Pam Walker68/istock

Hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant gases are being phased out in Europe and elsewhere, but in an April 8 report, London-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) warned of a widespread, illegal HFC trade going on in Europe.  

 

HFCs are used for essential services such as refrigeration, air-conditioning, building insulation, fire extinguishing systems, and aerosols, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But HFCs are implicated as a greenhouse gas, and their use is being reduced and discontinued. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition says there are many climate-friendly alternatives, so HFC emissions can be virtually eliminated by 2050. 

 

European Union emissions of fluorinated greenhouse gases (F-gas) peaked in 2014, the European Environment  Agency in 2023. These emissions have since fallen by about 25% in part because of an EU-wide HFC phase-down that started in 2019 under the Montreal Protocol, the EEA said. It added that the EU is currently “on track” to meet its targets and phase out HFC use by 2030. 

 

The EIA report said the illegal HFC gas trade it spotted five years ago is continuing. EIA said its investigators, acting partly undercover, found evidence that “significant levels of trafficking persist” despite the refrigerant phase-down. 

The EIA attributes the problem to organized crime cashing in on the highly lucrative trade by circumventing “weak” enforcement via sophisticated evasion tactics. The gases are sourced by smugglers from China and Turkey, and brought across the continent into Bulgaria and other countries just outside the EU bloc. Their final destinations are nations such as Greece, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, according to the EIA.  


Smugglers avoid detection by “disguising” HFCs as less-regulated hydrofluoroolefins (HFO), which has a lower potential to react with ozone. 


According to EIA Senior Climate Campaigner Fin Walravens, HFC smuggling is not only driven by outsized profits for traffickers, but it is also “fueled by ongoing demand for the gases, primarily used in the cooling sector.” 


“Globally, HFCs are being phased down under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer,” she said. In the meantime, she said, “There is an urgent need for coordinated proactive enforcement efforts across the EU to combat HFC climate crime.”   

 

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