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2.44 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I shall do my best to respond to the debate. When I am speaking on matters that are outside the direct subject of my portfolio, I try to be as well-informed as possible and to get up to speed on the topic. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) has raised highly technical issues on a subject that is itself highly technical, and neither the title of the debate nor any of the advance information enable me to respond in the focused

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way that she requests. As my hon. Friend is aware, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, whose commitment to and knowledge of the issues is undoubted, is attending an international conference on matters within his portfolio.

My hon. Friend has raised issues that are the responsibility both of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of the Department of Trade and Industry. I will try to address the points that she has made and I also undertake to respond to her in writing after the debate.

Our input to CEN, to which my hon. Friend referred, is primarily through the British Standards Institution, which is an independent body. We have input through officials, too, but the situation is slightly more complex than she suggested.

My hon. Friend made it clear that her speech drew largely on briefings from Calor, which produces a range of hydrocarbon refrigerants. Calor has written to Ministers and officials at DEFRA and the DTI about the difficulties it has experienced with the standard-setting process. As my hon. Friend observed, the company sees that process as heavily influenced by the HFC industry. The current standard means that hydrocarbons could not be used to replace ozone-depleting substances in some of the smallest refrigeration equipment. The only alternative would be to use HFCs.

The prevailing view is that if Calor focused its energies more towards discussions with refrigeration compressor manufacturers—for example, by forming alliances with the hydrocarbon industry in Germany, where most domestic refrigerators use hydrocarbon refrigerant, as my hon. Friend pointed out—it would have been more successful in reaching a satisfactory outcome. I understand that that point has been made directly to the company.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and I welcome this opportunity to address it. Climate change is a significant global concern and some change in the world's climate is inevitable. Some of the worst effects of climate change could be avoided, however, if global action were taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Kingdom continues to put climate change at the top of its environmental agenda. We strongly support the Kyoto protocol as the international framework for global action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. We are one of the few OECD countries to have met, and gone beyond, the target agreed at the Earth summit in Rio in 1992 to return our emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2000.

We published our climate change programme in November 2000. It sets out how the UK will deliver its Kyoto target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. below 1990 levels by the first Kyoto commitment period—2008-12. The programme also explains how we shall move towards our domestic goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. We estimate that the programme could cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions to 23 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010, which would be significantly beyond our Kyoto target.

HFCs are one of the six gases in the Kyoto "basket". They are man-made, fluorinated greenhouse gases which, in some cases, have a global warming potential more than 1,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Gases such as

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HFC 134A were developed about a decade ago, mainly to replace ozone-depleting CFCs in refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment.

In 2000, the Government recognised the importance of giving industry a clear signal on the future of HFCs.

In the UK climate change programme, therefore, we set out the four key elements of our position. First, HFCs should be used only where other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist. Secondly, HFCs are not sustainable in the long term. The Government believe that continued technological developments will mean that, eventually, it may be possible to replace HFCs in applications where they are used. Thirdly, HFC emission reduction strategies should not undermine commitments to phasing out ozone-depleting substances under the Montreal protocol. Fourthly, HFC emissions will not be allowed to rise unchecked.

At European level, EU Environment Ministers agreed in December 2001 that legislation to control emissions from HFCs and other fluorinated gases would be introduced as part of the European climate change programme. We expect the European Commission to come forward with proposals later this year.

My hon. Friend specifically raised the relationship between standard setting and HFCs. Product standardisation is a voluntary industry process facilitated, as I said at the start of my speech, by standards bodies such as the British Standards Institution. Its purpose is to provide the certainty that industry requires on market needs. I emphasise again the fact that BSI is independent of Government.

Product standards are discussed in various committees made up of technical experts drawn from business, who provide their time and expertise voluntarily. BSI provides the framework for discussions in the UK, and representatives from its committees act as UK delegates to, and prepare for, the European and international standards bodies. The arrangements underline the fact that Government and industry together need to tackle many of these issues in order for this country to be successful in meeting its obligations.

European and international standard-setting bodies are currently looking at standards for refrigeration and air-conditioning plant and equipment. That covers the use of both HFCs and hydrocarbons, which are alternatives to HFCs in certain applications. In doing so, their key focus is safety. Hydrocarbons are flammable, which does raise safety issues when they are considered as refrigerants. I do not want to get that out of proportion, but it is an aspect that must be taken into consideration. The refrigerant, if it escapes or leaks, is in electrical equipment, so there is the possibility of fire.

Also, it is not a simple matter of substituting one refrigerant for another. To work with hydrocarbons, equipment needs a good deal of modification. The industry would probably need to use equipment designed for hydrocarbons rather than to convert, as it would be difficult to accommodate such a change in design. However, the problems are not insurmountable and manufacturers of air conditioning and refrigeration plant and their component suppliers have technical solutions to those problems.

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We are encouraged that some products using hydrocarbon refrigerants are already on the market, both in domestic and in commercial appliances. Of course it is important to be able to determine safe levels of hydrocarbons to be used in those products. There will be no quick fixes on that, and discussions in European and international bodies will be needed to ensure that the safety issues are addressed adequately, while at the same time enabling environmentally beneficial new technology to become established.

Emissions of HFCs have the potential to make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. In refrigeration and air-conditioning markets in particular, considerable growth in usage and emissions is expected as ozone-depleting refrigerants are phased out. It is therefore important that action be taken soon at European level to limit and minimise emissions, providing the stimulus to industry to develop more sustainable solutions in the longer term.

Initial estimates prepared for my Department indicate that hydrocarbons may currently comprise between 5 and 10 per cent. of the UK refrigeration market. At present levels, these already enable us to avoid emissions of some 23 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of about 0.7 per cent. of current emissions from the refrigeration sector. We expect that this will grow over the current decade, even without further controls on HFCs.

Pending EU-wide action, the Government are taking a number of steps with both the refrigeration and air-conditioning sectors and other users of HFCs. In the UK climate change programme, we proposed the definition of minimum qualifications for people who handle refrigerants, including HFCs.

The industry is now working up a national registration scheme for refrigeration and handlers. Setting minimum training requirements will help limit refrigerant emissions. When we receive a final agreed framework from industry, we hope to introduce, with industry support, legislation to make the scheme mandatory. A scheme would also cover personnel handling mobile air-conditioning systems in cars. It will be important to limit HFC emissions from that fast-growing sector. We also plan to ban the supply of HFCs and other refrigerants in disposable containers.

We recognise that HFCs have made a considerable contribution to vital efforts to tackle ozone depletion. We cannot be complacent about the state of the ozone layer, but an internationally accepted and effective framework is in place to ensure that we remain on track. However, climate change now presents us with an equally pressing environmental challenge—perhaps the biggest that the planet now faces.

In that context, HFCs will pose an increasingly significant problem. It is therefore vital that the industry work constructively in collaboration with the Government to address this new challenge. On the industry's side, those efforts must be made in developing new technology, but industry bodies such as those setting product standards also have a role to play. The Government need to ensure that we send the right signals to industry about long-term sustainability, so that the industry can adapt to meet those imperatives.

The Government are urging the European Commission to produce effective proposals on how to control HFC emissions as soon as possible. The industry's response to

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the need to tackle ozone depletion has been a success story, and I look forward to similar successes in tackling climate change.

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