Refrigerant in illegal non-refillable cylinders is being openly sold on the internet

UK: The UK government insists it will maintain the HFC phase down post-Brexit but has ignored claims that the Environment Agency does not have the adequate resources to tackle compliance.

Published today, the government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee report on the UK’s progress on reducing F-gas emissions has also dismissed calls to reform the renewable heat incentive to encourage the use of low GWP refrigerants in heat pumps.

Industry concerns over non-compliance and whether the Environment Agency (EA) had the necessary resources available to tackle illegal refrigerant sales were also side-stepped in the government’s response.

The Environmental Audit Committee, which called on submissions from the UK air conditioning and refrigeration industry, found that the UK could go further to reduce F-gas emissions.

Commenting on the government’s response, Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “While the government was positive about many of our recommendations, we are disappointed it has not shown more urgency and set out clear targets and a timeframe for achieving them. The government can and should do more.”

Faced with evidence of illegal activities, particularly on the internet, the audit committee questioned whether the Environment Agency had adequate resources to tackle the problem. It pointed to the low number of investigations and the single prosecution for a self-reported breach since the beginning of 2015, and asked for DEFRA and the Environment Agency to publish plans for monitoring non-compliance, especially on social media sites.

Basing its reply on a recent European Commission report which found no large scale illegal trade in HFCs, the government said that this indicated that “compliance with the HFC phase down was generally good and the main environmental outcomes are being achieved”.

It explains that the Environment Agency focuses on bringing organisations into compliance by using enforcement notices, advice, awareness campaigns and guidance to make businesses aware of their obligations.

“The number of prosecutions is not, therefore, necessarily a good indicator of the effectiveness of compliance work,” the government says in its response.

The government also maintained that the EA monitors sales on online marketplaces such as eBay and Amazon on a daily basis. In the event of any products being sold in breach of the regulations, it said the EA works with the online platform to have them removed. It also insisted that the EA also carries out intelligence led investigations into non-compliance, whether that be at physical locations or via the internet.

There has also been previous concerns over a disconnect between the customs authorities and the F-gas quota system and more recent evidence of a rise in the amount of refrigerant entering the country in illegal disposable cylinders.

In its report, the Environmental Audit Committee asked the government how it would ensure with HMRC that there are no weaknesses in the F-gas regime now and after the UK leaves the EU.

The government insists that the Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases (Amendment) Regulations 2018 give HMRC the ability to share information with the Environment Agency about imports. It says: “The EA will use this data to target products from outside the EU that breach the regulations.”

It also declined to publish details of how the EA monitors and investigates non-compliance “as publicising these techniques could undermine their effectiveness, making it harder to enforce the Regulation”.

Car air conditioning top-ups

The anomaly of the general public being able to buy F-gas to top-up car air conditioning systems was also raised again. The Environmental Audit Committee insisted that only qualified persons should be able to handle F-gases. The legal availability of high GWP HFCs for the unsupervised top-up of car air conditioning units risked undermining the system, it said, with illegal activities putting responsible businesses at a disadvantage and endangering consumers if refrigerants were used inappropriately, such as flammable HFCs being applied to systems designed for low flammable HFCs.

The government pointed out that EU legislation does not prohibit these sales to members of the public as long as they use refillable and returnable containers and do not remove refrigerant from the system. It also felt that as all new cars must now use low GWP refrigerants the use of high GWP top-up kits would decline over time.

Despite evidence of flammable hydrocarbons being openly sold as top-up gas for R134a in car air conditioning systems, the government also insists: “The safety of consumer goods is regulated and enforced by local authority Trading Standards services, with the support of the Office for Product Safety and Standards.” 

The committee was keen for the government to encourage the use of low GWP refrigerants in heat pumps by reforming the renewable heat incentive schemes. The government accepted that heat pumps play an increasingly important environmental role but argued that the F-gas quota cuts were already driving industry to look for low GWP alternatives for heat pumps. It felt that any additional measures to reduce the use of high GWP refrigerants must not hinder heat pump uptake as that would be counter-productive for the environment.

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