The illegal import of hydrofluorocarbons, known as HFCs, for refrigerators and air conditioning units contributed the equivalent of four coal-powered power stations in 2018 to greenhouse gas emissions.

HFCs also known as F-gases, are manmade gases, principally manufactured in China, that float around in the atmosphere for decades and according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released last year are up to nearly 4,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Other fluorinated gases that are used in foam sprays as propellants can be up to 24,000 times more damaging than CO2.

China is the world’s largest producer of HFCs, and the EU is its biggest export market. The European car industry is a big customer of HFCs, which it uses in-car air-conditioning units, and while the very latest models in car showrooms use less damaging refrigerants, the air-conditioning systems in virtually all the cars currently on the road use HFCs, which often need to be replaced while a car is still in use.

Because HFCs are so damaging to the environment, the EU introduced a quota for them in 2018, which led to a scarcity in supply, while the demand continued to grow. As a result, the official market price for legally imported HFCs skyrocketed by 800%.

Black Market Mushrooms 

This attempt by the EU to force the market to replace HFCs with more climate-friendly alternatives resulted in the huge increase in smugglers prepared to import them illegally on the black market. F-gases equivalent to 16 million tonnes of CO2 entered the European market illegally in 2018.

On eBay, an illegally imported HFC gas cylinder can sell for as little €180 and while there is still a legal market for HFCs as well, this is making it very difficult for the authorities to find those people bringing them into the continent illegally.

The cost of an HFC gas cylinder imported from China on the black-market including transport works out at about €63 and so the profit mark-up is massive.

The owner of a small shop in Germany that specialises in cooling systems who did not want to be named told DW that the price of refrigerant can be critical.

“When the gas cylinders suddenly cost €700, we brought cheaper cylinders on eBay,” he said.

But these individual cylinders only count for a tiny fraction of the HFCs smuggled into Europe.   A shipping container can hold 900 cylinders and so legal importers of HFCs are abusing the system and exceeding their quota. Because of inefficient and outdated customs controls, which do not keep a complete record of what is brought in the law is easy to flout.

Customs Must Up Their Game

The EIA says that to properly identify all the different scams used by a range of importers, customs officials need specialised training, particularly in the EU’s border countries like Poland.

Polish customs officials that had been trained what to look for busted two deliveries of 13 and 26 tonnes of HFCs in the last two months.

The law against people illegally importing and selling HFCs is not uniform but varies across different EU states and in some states, it is simply not enforced.

While anyone caught selling illegal HFCs in disposable cylinders in Germany can face a fine of up to €50,000 and a prison sentence of up two years, other EU countries haven’t even implemented the EU wide F-gas regulations. Both Italy and Romania have been reprimanded by the European Commission for no progress in implementing it.

The European Commission insists it is doing what-ever it can to clamp down on the illegal trade and from 2020 onwards it plans to introduce a Europewide electronic system that will be able to automatically know if an F-gas importer has gone over their quota.

While legal producers and importers of HFC gases are becoming increasingly likely to share information of illegal importers with OLAF, the European Anti-fraud Office.

Unless there is better global regulation on HFCs, then they could account for about 8% of total world climate-related emissions by 2050.

Photo from the UN Environment Programme

Edward Cowley