HC Deb 24 May 2002 vol 386 cc568-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

2.30 pm
Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter, even if in getting to this point the ride was a little bumpy along the way.

My main concern is to expose an international fix that is designed to prop up the right of an industry—the refrigeration and air conditioning industry—to pollute, and to block the progress of a green alternative technology. The industry is dominated by hydrofluorocarbon interests. Some might think that area rather technical, and be tempted to dismiss the matter as a side issue, but in fact it is crucial to our success in delivering on our Kyoto targets.

HFCs are extremely powerful global warming gases. On average, they have 2,274 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. It is no surprise, therefore, that Kyoto included HFCs among the emissions that must be reduced to stop global warming. The UK fully recognises the pollution potential of HFCs, and the Government's stated position is clear. According to "Climate Change: the UK Programme", published in November 2000: HFCs should only be used where other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist…HFCs are not sustainable in the long term…HFC emissions will not be allowed to rise unchecked. According to the same document, alternative technologies do exist to counter what the Government identify as a steep upward trend in emissive uses of hydrofluorocarbons". For example, in Germany, which has some of the strictest health and safety standards in the world, about 95 per cent. of domestic refrigerators use hydrocarbons. HCs have negligible global warming potential. They are flammable, but the technology is well proven and safe. After 70 million operational years in Germany, not a single accident has taken place.

In October 2000, the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned the Swann Report, entitled "The Public Policy Interest in the UK in Standardisation". It stated: Standards can be used to create trade barriers as well as to remove them. It is important for government to work against the danger of standards being used to create trade barriers, but rather to promote the very beneficial effects of standardisation. Professor Swann was right to identify this potential generic problem with standard setting.

Turning to product standards for refrigeration, there are four key European and international standards committees, including the CEN—the European Standardisation Committee and the ISO, the International Standard Organisation. The HFC industry predominates, with majorities over rival HC manufacturers and users of 12:4, 9:3, 12:0 and 15:4. The TC182 committee is overwhelmingly dominated by HFC interests, and is chaired by a consultant for the American Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, which has a formal policy against the use of HCs. That committee has proposed a standard for hydrocarbon air conditioning that would outlaw 80 per cent. of units currently in use, and which would also cover refrigeration equipment. The introduction of such requirements would have the same effect on commercial refrigeration equipment for supermarkets, convenience stores, pubs, restaurants and so on, for which similar restrictions would apply.

A review meeting in Switzerland is scheduled for early June, but it is still likely to be HFC-dominated, with the HC voice either not heard or overridden. The refrigerant charge in air conditioning is relatively large. If that sector of the market is shut off to HCs, it will remove most of the incentive for market entrants to invest in the cleaner technology. That offends against a sense of British fair play. As I said, Professor Swann underlined how important it is for the Government to work against the danger of standards being used to create trade barriers".

My purpose today is to discover what work the Government have done against that danger lurking in refrigeration and air conditioning.

The response from the Department of Trade and Industry to complaints about the issue has been standoffish. The Department told one HC manufacturer, Calor, to take the matter up with European and international fora as appropriate". The Department claims that the standardisation process is voluntary and independent of Government. That is true up to a point—the European Commission can mandate its committee, the CEN. What moves have our Government made in COREPER to encourage the Commission to mandate the CEN that HFCs should be used only when other, safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist, or that HC standards should be set by HC expertise rather than HFC vested interests?

Lamely, the DTI has also urged Calor to cultivate "natural allies" and collaborate with other HC producers to try to persuade others in the industry"— the HFC industry— to be more positive to HCs. That, I am sorry to say, is naive. Although they have existed for years, HC refrigerants are effectively in the position of market entrants with relatively little clout against a vast industry that dominates the standard-setting process and is backed by a richly endowed international lobbying front known as EPEE—which, incidentally, is the French for "sword". My view is that the Government have a strong interest in ensuring that the international standard-setting procedures are above suspicion, and not driven by the wish to create trade barriers and market closure. Calor has made representations to the CEN on the issue, but what representations has the Government made to it to ensure that the process can reclaim international respect?

I understand that a better regulation action plan will be published soon by the EU and that the European Parliament will be urged to devolve some of its responsibilities to self-regulating industries. In principle, that sounds good, but, as the evidence shows, self-regulation is in practice subject to anti-competitive abuse. What signals does that send? What confidence can we have in such a well-intentioned process if it is manipulated by vested interests against market entrants, against innovation and against the environmental policies of several EU Governments, including our own?

It will not be good enough for Governments and Ministers to wash their hands of the matter by claiming nobility of intent. Far from being self-standing, the process will be tarred as self-seeking. What are the Government doing to protect the honour of better regulation and self-regulation from flagrant manipulation?

If that move is left unchecked, the losers will not only be the HC manufacturers—for whom I hold no brief—but the integrity of the CEN and the better regulation initiative. The global environment will continue for generations to pay the price exacted by greenhouse gas manufacturers clever enough to manipulate the system.

One way to examine the Government's attitude to HFCs is to look at what they have done when installing air conditioning and refrigeration systems in their own buildings. Do the Government walk as they talk on HFCs? The Government's stated position is clear: HFCs should only be used where other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist". So, one would have thought that when installing air conditioning and refrigeration units in their own buildings the Government would ensure that they would do so only where other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist.

The good news is that they have followed that policy. I am grateful to Star Refrigeration for informing me that the government building leased to the International Maritime Organisation—just across the river from us here in the House—is having two large 1.4 MW building services water chilling systems installed, using ammonia refrigerant. So is the message is getting through? Unfortunately not.

In the past few weeks I have tabled questions to various Departments to find out what they have been doing. I tabled the questions on 22 April and out of the five Departments questioned, I have not yet received a reply from the Ministry of Defence. I hope that that is a sign that I will receive a full answer to the question. I do not, of course, expect my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to respond to that now.

The first to reply, on 30 April, was the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It said that it had no significant building projects under construction—I will come back to that—and that the Department sought to avoid or minimise air conditioning but where it had to be used, the use of coolants that contribute to climate change will be avoided wherever that is safe, cost-effective and technically feasible.

We have seen a watering down of the Government's policy. We have moved from a presumption not to use HFCs unless there are other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives to one where coolants that contribute to climate change will be avoided wherever it is safe, cost-effective and technically feasible to do so.

The next answer came from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which had been asked about the coolant for the new Government Communications Headquarters building. It said that the building will use the refrigerant HFC 134A, a commercially available, non-ozone-depleting refrigerant. That is true, but what about the climate change impact? The Greenpeace position paper on 134A states: We must not attempt to solve the ozone crisis by contributing to another environmental disaster, such as global warming leading to climate change.

An answer to a separate question reveals that HFC 134A was responsible for 2.61 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2000. That is not quite the Government climate change policy of not using HFC unless there is no choice.

The Secretary of State for Health provided me with a list of 77 building projects currently under way, but the information on the coolant is not collected centrally. However, the Department did say that NHS Model Engineering Specification Rev 3 November 1997, MES C10 Refrigeration Plant General advises that HFC 134A or 407C and its associate blends are used. That is even further from the climate change policy.

I will not detain the House with lengthy resumes of other parliamentary answers I have received. However, it is significant that the Lord Chancellor's Department states that although it has no building projects under construction, it has a number in the planning stage and its policy is not to use a coolant if possible, but if it has to, it must be non-ozone-depleting. There is no consideration of climate change impact. Disappointingly, the Government are not doing very well in implementing their own climate change policies.

I have shown the problems that are being created by the standard-setting process which is working against the Government's climate change policy and how the market for coolants and refrigerants will continue to be skewed towards a product that has massive climate change implications. I also think that I have shown that, perhaps unwittingly, the Government may be undermining their own climate change programme. The question to my right hon. Friend, to whom I am most grateful for coming to the House this afternoon, is what are we going to do about it?

In conclusion, I have two specific questions for my right hon. Friend. What will the Government do to prevent standard setting for refrigerants from undermining our climate change programme and meeting our Kyoto undertakings? Secondly, what will they do to ensure that when they buy refrigerants or coolants for their own buildings, they do not act against their own climate change programme?

May I make a suggestion? How about placing an item on the agenda of the next Green Ministers meeting stating that all Departments should draw up their construction advice or specifications so that they marry up with the climate change programme? I would begin the parliamentary recess feeling happier if I could get such an undertaking from my right hon. Friend today.

2.44 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael)

I shall do my best to respond to the debate. When I am speaking on matters that are outside the direct subject of my portfolio, I try to be as well-informed as possible and to get up to speed on the topic. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) has raised highly technical issues on a subject that is itself highly technical, and neither the title of the debate nor any of the advance information enable me to respond in the focused way that she requests. As my hon. Friend is aware, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, whose commitment to and knowledge of the issues is undoubted, is attending an international conference on matters within his portfolio.

My hon. Friend has raised issues that are the responsibility both of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of the Department of Trade and Industry. I will try to address the points that she has made and I also undertake to respond to her in writing after the debate.

Our input to CEN, to which my hon. Friend referred, is primarily through the British Standards Institution, which is an independent body. We have input through officials, too, but the situation is slightly more complex than she suggested.

My hon. Friend made it clear that her speech drew largely on briefings from Calor, which produces a range of hydrocarbon refrigerants. Calor has written to Ministers and officials at DEFRA and the DTI about the difficulties it has experienced with the standard-setting process. As my hon. Friend observed, the company sees that process as heavily influenced by the HFC industry. The current standard means that hydrocarbons could not be used to replace ozone-depleting substances in some of the smallest refrigeration equipment. The only alternative would be to use HFCs.

The prevailing view is that if Calor focused its energies more towards discussions with refrigeration compressor manufacturers—for example, by forming alliances with the hydrocarbon industry in Germany, where most domestic refrigerators use hydrocarbon refrigerant, as my hon. Friend pointed out—it would have been more successful in reaching a satisfactory outcome. I understand that that point has been made directly to the company.

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue and I welcome this opportunity to address it. Climate change is a significant global concern and some change in the world's climate is inevitable. Some of the worst effects of climate change could be avoided, however, if global action were taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Kingdom continues to put climate change at the top of its environmental agenda. We strongly support the Kyoto protocol as the international framework for global action to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. We are one of the few OECD countries to have met, and gone beyond, the target agreed at the Earth summit in Rio in 1992 to return our emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2000.

We published our climate change programme in November 2000. It sets out how the UK will deliver its Kyoto target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. below 1990 levels by the first Kyoto commitment period—2008–12. The programme also explains how we shall move towards our domestic goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. We estimate that the programme could cut the UK's greenhouse gas emissions to 23 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010, which would be significantly beyond our Kyoto target.

HFCs are one of the six gases in the Kyoto "basket". They are man-made, fluorinated greenhouse gases which, in some cases, have a global warming potential more than 1,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. Gases such as HFC 134A were developed about a decade ago, mainly to replace ozone-depleting CFCs in refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment.

In 2000, the Government recognised the importance of giving industry a clear signal on the future of HFCs.

In the UK climate change programme, therefore, we set out the four key elements of our position. First, HFCs should be used only where other safe, technically feasible, cost-effective and more environmentally acceptable alternatives do not exist. Secondly, HFCs are not sustainable in the long term. The Government believe that continued technological developments will mean that, eventually, it may be possible to replace HFCs in applications where they are used. Thirdly, HFC emission reduction strategies should not undermine commitments to phasing out ozone-depleting substances under the Montreal protocol. Fourthly, HFC emissions will not be allowed to rise unchecked.

At European level, EU Environment Ministers agreed in December 2001 that legislation to control emissions from HFCs and other fluorinated gases would be introduced as part of the European climate change programme. We expect the European Commission to come forward with proposals later this year.

My hon. Friend specifically raised the relationship between standard setting and HFCs. Product standardisation is a voluntary industry process facilitated, as I said at the start of my speech, by standards bodies such as the British Standards Institution. Its purpose is to provide the certainty that industry requires on market needs. I emphasise again the fact that BSI is independent of Government.

Product standards are discussed in various committees made up of technical experts drawn from business, who provide their time and expertise voluntarily. BSI provides the framework for discussions in the UK, and representatives from its committees act as UK delegates to, and prepare for, the European and international standards bodies. The arrangements underline the fact that Government and industry together need to tackle many of these issues in order for this country to be successful in meeting its obligations.

European and international standard-setting bodies are currently looking at standards for refrigeration and air-conditioning plant and equipment. That covers the use of both HFCs and hydrocarbons, which are alternatives to HFCs in certain applications. In doing so, their key focus is safety. Hydrocarbons are flammable, which does raise safety issues when they are considered as refrigerants. I do not want to get that out of proportion, but it is an aspect that must be taken into consideration. The refrigerant, if it escapes or leaks, is in electrical equipment, so there is the possibility of fire.

Also, it is not a simple matter of substituting one refrigerant for another. To work with hydrocarbons, equipment needs a good deal of modification. The industry would probably need to use equipment designed for hydrocarbons rather than to convert, as it would be difficult to accommodate such a change in design. However, the problems are not insurmountable and manufacturers of air conditioning and refrigeration plant and their component suppliers have technical solutions to those problems.

We are encouraged that some products using hydrocarbon refrigerants are already on the market, both in domestic and in commercial appliances. Of course it is important to be able to determine safe levels of hydrocarbons to be used in those products. There will be no quick fixes on that, and discussions in European and international bodies will be needed to ensure that the safety issues are addressed adequately, while at the same time enabling environmentally beneficial new technology to become established.

Emissions of HFCs have the potential to make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. In refrigeration and air-conditioning markets in particular, considerable growth in usage and emissions is expected as ozone-depleting refrigerants are phased out. It is therefore important that action be taken soon at European level to limit and minimise emissions, providing the stimulus to industry to develop more sustainable solutions in the longer term.

Initial estimates prepared for my Department indicate that hydrocarbons may currently comprise between 5 and 10 per cent. of the UK refrigeration market. At present levels, these already enable us to avoid emissions of some 23 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent of about 0.7 per cent. of current emissions from the refrigeration sector. We expect that this will grow over the current decade, even without further controls on HFCs.

Pending EU-wide action, the Government are taking a number of steps with both the refrigeration and air-conditioning sectors and other users of HFCs. In the UK climate change programme, we proposed the definition of minimum qualifications for people who handle refrigerants, including HFCs.

The industry is now working up a national registration scheme for refrigeration and handlers. Setting minimum training requirements will help limit refrigerant emissions. When we receive a final agreed framework from industry, we hope to introduce, with industry support, legislation to make the scheme mandatory. A scheme would also cover personnel handling mobile air-conditioning systems in cars. It will be important to limit HFC emissions from that fast-growing sector. We also plan to ban the supply of HFCs and other refrigerants in disposable containers.

We recognise that HFCs have made a considerable contribution to vital efforts to tackle ozone depletion. We cannot be complacent about the state of the ozone layer, but an internationally accepted and effective framework is in place to ensure that we remain on track. However, climate change now presents us with an equally pressing environmental challenge—perhaps the biggest that the planet now faces.

In that context, HFCs will pose an increasingly significant problem. It is therefore vital that the industry work constructively in collaboration with the Government to address this new challenge. On the industry's side, those efforts must be made in developing new technology, but industry bodies such as those setting product standards also have a role to play. The Government need to ensure that we send the right signals to industry about long-term sustainability, so that the industry can adapt to meet those imperatives.

The Government are urging the European Commission to produce effective proposals on how to control HFC emissions as soon as possible. The industry's response to the need to tackle ozone depletion has been a success story, and I look forward to similar successes in tackling climate change.

2.56 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Since the conclusion of the last debate, I have received news that a helicopter engaged in duties on behalf the lighthouse board has been involved in an accident in Orkney. I am not yet fully aware of the circumstances, but I understand that the helicopter, which was working in fairly high winds and carrying a load underneath it on a steel rope, crashed into the sea when that steel rope snapped and became entangled in the helicopter's rotor blades.

People in coastal communities throughout the country are always deeply aware of the risks that those who work for bodies such as the lighthouse board, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Maritime and Coastguard agency take upon themselves in the course of their duties. I am mindful of the fact that we are about to go into recess, and I would not wish the House do so without placing on record our concern not only for the missing pilot—we hope that he will be recovered safely—but for his family and work colleagues at what must clearly be a very difficult time for them.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Although that is not a point of order for the occupant of the Chair, I too wish to express my concern at the news that the hon. Gentleman brings. The House would wish to express its concern to the pilot's family and its grateful thanks and appreciation to the emergency services for the work that they are no doubt currently undertaking.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.