Originally introduced to replace ozone depleting substances, fluorinated gases (F-gases) are greenhouse gases (GHGs) with a high global warming potential (GWP) that can remain in the atmosphere for many years. Though a small part of the UK’s GHGs, reducing them can contribute to UK and global efforts to address climate change. The international community have agreed to reduce their use and in 2015 the EU introduced a phased market-based quota system to reduce their availability and drive take-up of alternatives. So far, this has delivered modest progress ahead of agreed deeper cuts. In the UK, this can help meet legally binding Carbon Budgets. Globally, if all countries meet agreed targets on reducing F-gases, it would reduce global temperature rises across this century by half a degree, significantly reducing the impact of global warming. Curbing their use is achievable because many of the most widely used F-gases—hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used primarily as refrigerants and propellants, can be replaced by lower GWP alternatives.
However, the Government must enforce existing F-gas rules to phase down the use of HFCs and meet the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets. The Government must ensure that adequate resources are allocated to monitoring illegal activities, especially online, and that only qualified persons handle F-gases. For instance, the legal availability of high GWP HFCs for the unsupervised top-up of car air conditioning units risks undermining the system, and illegal activities put responsible businesses at a disadvantage and endanger consumers if refrigerants are used inappropriately, such as flammable HFCs being applied to systems designed for low flammable HFCs. After only one successful prosecution since 2015, for a self-reported offence of releasing high GWP sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) in to the atmosphere, the Government recently introduced civil penalties to make it easier to prosecute offenders but this will only work if the system is properly resourced.
There are opportunities to go further and faster. For example, the NHS should reduce reliance on asthma medication which uses Metered Dose Inhalers (MDIs), which use high GWP HFC propellants, by increasing the use of low GWP Dry Powdered Inhalers. In addition, medical companies or the NHS should establish a pharmacy recycling system to ensure that residual HFCs from MDIs are recycled rather than being released in landfill. The Government should also ensure that heat pumps, a renewable energy source, use low GWP refrigerants and that its sizeable procurement power is used to promote low GWP alternatives more widely.
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU raises significant challenges for the UK’s F-gas regime. The negotiations will determine whether the UK remains in the EU’s quota system or sets up its own regime. If the UK does leave the EU system, it is highly likely UK businesses will be faced with additional costs if they continue to trade in Europe. This is because they will have to join a UK system while being subject to the rules of the EU Quota. Furthermore, as they will not be members of the EU Quota they will lose flexibility in trading quotas with European counterparts. Outside of the EU system, the UK will lose the monitoring, oversight and enforcement provided by EU institutions and will need to replicate them, including a new UK F-gas registry. UK agencies, which already appear stressed, will need adequate resourcing to do this. The Government must ensure that new trade deals do not lower standards on products using high GWP HFCs.
If the UK leaves the EU’s F-gas system, and devolved powers are repatriated to the UK, there could be policy divergence across the UK, which could lead to additional red tape and costs for business. This is because with the planned repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 and without any provision made expressly by primary UK legislation, the devolved legislatures will be free to legislate in those areas of devolved competence, such as the environment, where the EU has jurisdiction and where EU law has primacy. The Government needs to outline a timetable for its negotiations with the devolved Administrations on how F-gases will be managed after we leave the EU. There are particular issues for Northern Ireland because of the desire to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. The Government must find a solution for Northern Ireland which does not create a back door for appliances containing F-gases banned in either the UK or the EU if one jurisdiction has higher—or lower—standards.
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has led to uncertainty over the status of mixed multilateral international agreements, where both the UK and EU signed. This is because it is not always clear which competences the UK and the EU signed up to, which could cast doubt on the UK’s continuing membership of such agreements. This applies to F-gases, because international action is governed through such an agreement—the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, but also to more complex agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Though it is unlikely that the UK would drop out of such agreements, the Government should address uncertainty by publishing legal analysis on their status and seek to issue a joint statement with the EU to confirm that the UK will fully assume its obligations when it leaves the EU.
Published: 25 April 2018