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Hydrofluorocarbons Limitation

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for limiting the use of hydrofluorocarbons in certain premises; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is to bring an end to the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the refrigeration units of large supermarkets—

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the clock can be stopped, but I should be grateful if Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quickly and quietly. The noise is very discourteous to the Member who has the Floor. I hope that we can have some regard to the way in which our proceedings are viewed by people outside this place.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Last year, I presented a similar Bill in an attempt to persuade the Government to regulate for the complete phasing out of HFCs in large supermarkets. Today, I shall attempt to impress on them three facts which I hope will convince them that it is time to act. HFCs are extremely harmful in terms of global warming and represent a growing proportion of our emissions. There is little to suggest that current European Union and United Kingdom regulation in the field has encouraged large retailers to speed up the process of eradicating the use of HFCs in their stores, and there is nothing in EU regulation to prevent the Government from regulating in this regard.

According to Greenpeace, HFCs can be up to 20,000 times more damaging in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide. The most common gas used in supermarket refrigeration, HFC-404A, is 3,800 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. It is predicted that by 2020 HFC emissions will be equivalent to between 2 billion and 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, approximately four times the level of the United Kingdom’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, stationary refrigeration units were the biggest source of F-gas emissions in the UK, and within that total, supermarkets account for more than half the emissions. Phasing out the HFCs in supermarkets has the potential to save more than 175 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalence between now and 2050. That is equivalent to a quarter of the UK’s annual carbon dioxide emissions.

The potential impact of gases on global warming is averaged over 100 years, which reflects the extraordinarily long time that gases responsible for global warming remain in the atmosphere and add to the problem. HFCs do not last for 100 years. The evidence is that global warming is accelerating. Prompt action now to remove gases that are 4,000 times more harmful than carbon dioxide and do not linger as long as other harmful gases has the attraction of buying much-needed time for other greenhouse gas mitigating measures to take effect. I hope the Minister will accept that the time to act is now.

I presented my Bill last year in response to a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency on the use of hydrofluorocarbons in supermarket refrigeration units. I commend the agency on its work. Its report was prompted by the announcement by a group of large supermarkets that they intend to move away from the use of HFCs. The EIA carried out its survey to monitor progress in August 2008. Its conclusions were not encouraging—the best-performing supermarket succeeded in reducing its HFC use in only three out of 620 stores.

The figures for other supermarkets were just four out of 1,700 stores and one out of 2,250 stores. I shall not name and shame the supermarkets involved, because the response in this area has been so mixed. The stated view from many in the industry is that regulation in this area would create the confidence across the industry to plan ahead, knowing that the supermarkets are all operating within the same framework. Such an approach would bring about the stated objective of the Department, which is to eradicate the use of HFCs. That view still applies today.

Following the presentation of my Bill last year, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote a letter to the EIA on 11 November in which he accepted that supermarkets were the “big emitters” and that

“reducing their emissions is a key focus of Defra’s work to reduce HFC emissions overall.”

He went on to say that in the short term the Government anticipate that

“with the comprehensive EU and GB regulatory framework now fully in force, significant reductions”—

in the use of HFCs—

“will be achieved in the next few years.”

I am sorry to say that there is little evidence that that is moving companies in the right direction.

In August 2009, the EIA carried out a further study of large supermarkets to see how far they had got in moving away from being dependent on these extremely harmful gases. Only 2 per cent. of the major stores in the UK are running HFC-free refrigeration systems—only 46 are now HFC-free compared with 14 last year. One of the largest supermarkets has experimented but has reneged on its promise to switch all its stores away from the use of HFCs, while one major chain continues to use HCFCs—hydrochlorofluorocarbons—which are supposed to be phased out this year. Aldi, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s refused to share their data on leakages, and so I shall make an exception in naming them. The level of the leakages emitted into the atmosphere reported to the EIA ranged from 14 to 17 per cent. of HFCs, so I am afraid that my hon. Friend’s confidence that the current regulatory regimes in the EU and the UK are sufficient to meet the urgent need for action on HFCs is misplaced. I hope that he will accept the argument that the time to regulate has come.

My third point is that nothing in the competition rules prevents the Government from regulating in this area. May I refer the Minister to article 95 of the treaty establishing the Economic Community which, following the passage of the treaty of Lisbon—I pardon him if he starts to fall asleep as I read this technical section—became article 114 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Community, TFEC? While on the approximation of laws, I should mention that paragraphs 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the article are the most relevant. They clearly demonstrate the need for the Government to make a case for the eradication of HFCs here in the UK—nothing is preventing the Government from making that case.

The Commission would then be required to consider whether this form of practice was aimed at seeking advantage over other EU countries or companies that operate within those countries and whether the UK was seeking to exclude those people from free trade with the UK. Those paragraphs contain clear powers for the UK to regulate to tackle environmental issues. Nothing excludes the UK from acting in this area and preventing the further use of HFCs in the future.

So, in conclusion, may I urge my hon. Friends in the Department to take on board the three arguments that I have made today and to agree to meet me and the EIA in the near future to discuss ways in which we can make a case to the European Commission that we are not breaching European competition laws, that there is scientific evidence that proves that it is necessary for us to act in this field, that current European and UK regulations are not moving the large supermarket chains along the road of eradicating hydrofluorocarbons and that action in the UK is absolutely necessary? With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

I rise to comment on this Bill, provoked by the question of why we need such legislation in the first place. I agree with the intentions and objectives of the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), but I am extremely worried about the situation in which we find ourselves. We always talk about the environment, as do the supermarkets, yet they do not feel compelled to act without the threat of legislation. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have heard the supermarkets making various claims on this matter, as well as various general commitments to phasing out the hydrofluorocarbon-related refrigeration units that he has described. However, as he has rightly pointed out, the reality is far from the public relations commitments. If the supermarkets are serious about the environment and about improving their environmental footprint, as they incessantly tell us in their advertising, they ought to be making a formal statement about what date they will set for themselves to phase out the refrigeration units in question—perhaps 31 December 2015, which would give them half a decade to finish the job.

It seems to me that it would be unhelpful for me to divide the House on this matter—it would be a poor use of the Chamber’s time—but I want to put on the record my view that if no action is unilaterally taken by the supermarkets without this legislation, we cannot accept their claims that they take the environment seriously. I fear that not only will the supermarkets give us more words without action, but when it comes down to a fairly straightforward change of the type that the hon. Gentleman wants to see, they will be resistant for purely economic reasons. The environment is more important than that.

Let us see whether this ten-minute Bill causes the supermarkets to act and to make a commitment to act in the next few days. If they do not, not only will I be disappointed by the claimed intentions of supermarkets not being followed up with action, but I will also feel that the prognosis for the environment as a whole is grim indeed.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Clive Efford, Steve Webb, Norman Baker, Peter Bottomley, Andrew George, Mr. David Drew, Jim Dowd, Mr. Michael Meacher, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Ms Karen Buck, John Austin and Mrs. Ann Cryer present the Bill.

Clive Efford accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 April and to be printed (Bill 81).