HFC-23 emissions on the rise

India, China threaten to release more super greenhouse gas; developed countries just as guilty

By Indrajit Bose
Published: Wednesday 26 June 2013


A climate bomb is fast ticking—in India, China, Europe, the US and Mexico. HFC-23, a byproduct released during the production of the chemical HCFC 22, used in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries, gets the “bomb” title because it is a highly potent greenhouse gas—nearly 15,000 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Ideally, the gas should be destroyed. Technology to destroy the gas exists. But it is being released into the atmosphere freely, says a recent report by Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a non-profit in the US. And the practice may continue, the report warns, because the economic incentive for companies to destroy the gas by incineration is now gone.

Nineteen HCFC-22 refrigerant facilities are spread over China, India, South Korea, Argentina and Mexico and incinerators for destroying HFC-23 are installed in all these companies. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), these CDM plants received billions of dollars from the sale of HFC-23 carbon credits. Starting May 1, 2013, however, the EU disallowed HFC-23 destruction credits from its emissions trading scheme. Carbon markets in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and California have also announced that they will not allow the use of HFC-23 offsets. This leaves the companies with very little choice to find money against destroying HFC-23 in carbon markets. But there also exists non-CDM production facilities such as in China. What are they up to?

Incentive to incinerate gone

According to EIA, which conducted investigations in China and India, 17 non-CDM facilities in China have been venting millions tonnes of CO2e a year, making them some of the largest point source emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and the CDM units are poised to join the non-CDM plants in venting their HFC-23. Similarly, Indian plants also indicated that they might vent HFC-23 if additional financing was not provided to them to incinerate the gas as per the report.

“My sense is that we will probably stop (the incineration) internally, because there is cost in incinerating, and unless there is revenue to at least compensate that cost, it wouldn’t make sense to keep on incinerating,” EIA quotes the HCFC-22 director at Gujarat Fluorocarbons Ltd (GFL) in their report. “The reason we did was because of the economic incentives offered to the operation, but if the incentives are taken away, there is no commercial justification to continue to incinerate,” the HCFC-22 director apparently told EIA. EIA’s analysis of the company’s annual report reveals that GFL earned about US$ 175 million in 2012 from CERs, whereas they earned US$ 14.4 million through refrigerant sales.

Down To Earth (DTE) did not get any response from the company despite repeated attempts for a reaction. DTE also got in touch with Hindustan Fluorocarbons Ltd and SRF Ltd, the other Indian companies mentioned in EIA’s report, but they all refused to comment. However, it’s not just in the South where all is wrong. The North has a share in this too.

US, Europe release HFC-23

Even the developed countries have incineration technology, but these countries cannot absolve themselves of contributing their share to global warming. In 2011, US emissions of HFC-23 were 6.9 million tones CO2e, and these are almost wholly attributed to just two facilities owned by Honeywell in Louisiana and Dupont in Kentucky. The 2011 figure, though, was higher than the emissions in 2010—6.4 million tonnes CO2e. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the reason was a 9 per cent increase in HCFC-22 production. But EIA argues that when technology can destroy 99.99 per cent of HFC-23, there “can be no excuse for continued HFC-23 emissions from these companies” and questions how “multi billion dollar chemical companies in the US and Europe can continue to allow HFC-23 emissions from their facilities”.

Even though HFC-23 emissions from developed countries (primarily the US and European countries) decreased from 6-8Gg/year in late 1990s to 2.8 Gg/year in 2007, this is largely because HCFC-22 facilities declined in the developed world, and increased in the developing world. Under the Montreal Protocol (a multilateral treaty to protect the ozone layer) regime, developed countries pledged to freeze the production and consumption of HCFCs by 2004, and phase them out completely by 2020. Developing  countries consented to freeze them by 2013 and phase them out by 2030.

Europe under-reports numbers

Besides, there are irregularities in Europe’s reporting of HFC-23 emission figures, as per EIA. Even though Europe claims to have reduced HFC-23 emissions, in 2011, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters (Vol.38), which said that Western European emissions of HFC-23 were as much as 140 per cent higher than the figures contained in their national emissions reports. “HFCÔÇÉ23 emissions, as inferred from highÔÇÉquality atmospheric measurements of this species, are up to an order of magnitude higher for individual western European countries than reported within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, offering evidence for an underÔÇÉreporting of HFCÔÇÉ 23 emissions in western Europe by 60–140 per cent. These excess emissions can mainly be attributed to releases from HCFCÔÇÉ22 production in Italy and the Netherlands, reflecting the susceptibility of the HFCÔÇÉ23 budget to nonÔÇÉreported leakages in individual production plants.” The EIA report adds that emissions from the Arkema plant in France were twice as high as the reported values.

Clearly, the North as well as the South are to blame for contributing their share to causing global warming. But it is exactly the opposite when it comes to taking the responsibility to mitigate it.



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