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European Commission Holds Firm, Rejects Daimler's Push to Block New Climate-Friendly Refrigerant

David Doniger

Posted December 21, 2012 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming, U.S. Law and Policy

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Good news today from Brussels, as the European Community holds firm and rejects last-minute pressure from by Daimler, maker of Mercedes-Benz, to block the introduction of a climate-friendly refrigerant in car air conditioners.  As I’ve written here and here, the world auto industry is on the verge of a transition from HFC-134a, a powerful heat-trapping gas with 1,430 times the climate-changing power of carbon dioxide, to HFO-1234yf, a chemical with just 1/360th the punch.

On January 1, 2013, European law makes it illegal to market a “new type” car (essentially a major model redesign) with the any refrigerant whose climate-changing punch exceeds 150 times that of CO2.  That rules out 134a.  After rigorous safety testing, auto makers from Europe, the U.S., and Japan – including Daimler – picked 1234yf, with a global warming potential only 4 times CO2, as the replacement of choice.

But Daimler issued a surprise announcement in September that it would not use 1234yf based on simulations -- not actual crash tests -- of a very unusual and unlikely accident scenario. 

The reaction of nearly all other auto makers, safety experts at SAE International (the Society of Automotive Engineers), and other observers was that the Daimler simulations added no significant new information.  Everyone already knew that 1234yf is mildly flammable – less so, in fact, than many other fluids under the hood, starting with gasoline – and that the real-life risk can be minimized with good engineering design.  If Daimler found a flaw in its own design – for example, the proximity of its refrigerant lines to hot surfaces – the answer would be to fix the design, e.g., by relocating lines or adding insulation – not to stick with a coolant that’s dangerous for the climate.

Today the European Commission reaffirmed its conclusion that 1234yf is safe to use and rejected Daimler’s bid for another delay in the refrigerant transition schedule.  The Commission also signaled its plans to enforce compliance with the refrigerant transition by each of its member countries.  Here are highlights from today’s announcement:

The automotive manufacturers have decided, in 2009, on the use of refrigerant HFO 1234yf as the technical solution to comply with the Directive's targets. It is currently the only technical solution available for manufacturers to respect the ban on R134a on newly type-approved vehicles. The refrigerant chosen by the industry has a GWP of 4 (99,7% lower than R134a).

Directive 2006/40/EC is a key European law in the general efforts to reducing the environmental footprint of our automotive industry (in practice: a ban on MAC systems using gas R134a in newly type-approved vehicles, that is, M1 and N1 vehicles type-approved after 1 January 2011). Until the end of 2012 it has not been applied to its full effects due exclusively to a problem of supply of the refrigerant, which has now been solved. …

[T]there is no evidence, until today, that there are no technical solutions to mitigate the flammability risks associated to the use of the new gas 1234yf in MAC systems. Detailed risk assessments and standardisation processes were conducted with this objective, involving all manufacturers, which concluded that the risk of the use of this gas was equivalent or inferior of other flammable fluids used in vehicles, including gasoline. …

Given that MAC Directive will be fully enforced as of 1 January 2013, the Commission is analysing, with the Member States' authorities, the way forward to ensure compliance of the automotive manufacturers that have type-approved their vehicles for the use of the new gas in the respective territories.

As a general rule, each Member State is responsible for the implementation of EU law within its own legal system. The Commission is responsible for ensuring that EU law is correctly applied. Consequently, where a Member State fails to comply with EU law, the Commission has powers of its own (action for non-compliance) to try to bring the infringement to an end.  Under the non compliance procedure started by the Commission, the first phase is the pre-litigation administrative phase, also called “infringement proceedings”, that enables the Member State to conform voluntarily with the requirements of the law.

The Commission will endeavour all efforts to ensure the consistency of the internal market aswell as transparency and equal treatment in the whole European Union.

So, if Daimler proceeds to market its “new type” Mercedes-Benz models with HFC-134a in the air conditioner, it will be in violation of European law.

Kudos to the European Commission for standing its ground on protecting our climate.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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