Car makers have heard warning bells ringing over the use of HFC-134a as a coolant in air conditioning systems for some years. The warnings recently got louder as governments realised that such systems will soon be fitted in 80% of all new cars. The high global warming potential of the gas and likely leakage will erode the climate benefits of fuel efficiency gains expected in the near term.
Carbon dioxide air conditioning technology is considered by many in the industry to be a sound long-term bet because it has no direct greenhouse gas impact, is not flammable like the other touted replacements - HFC-152a and hydrocarbons - and offers fuel efficiency advantages. But it is the most expensive option, with estimated additional costs of €40-180.
At a stakeholders meeting in February, the European Commission heard opposing industry views on issues from the leakiness of HFC-based systems to the commercial availability of alternative technologies.
Two trade associations which made presentations at the meeting, one representing suppliers, the other car manufacturers, urged the Commission not to legislate to force a move away from HFCs.
US firms are most wedded to HFC-134a systems. At the Brussels meeting, Volvo - bought by Ford in 1999 - spoke strongly in favour of improving HFC-134a systems instead of switching to alternatives.
In contrast, the environmental group Climate Action Network Europe claims that alternatives 'are so close to commercialisation that it is hard to see research in HFC-134a as anything but a defensive effort designed to forestall their replacement'.
ENDS has been told by one industry supplier that without legislation one of the most promising new technologies may not take off. He asked not to be named because of his clients' sensitivities.
'If there is no regulation, there is a real risk that CO2 air conditioning technology will be dead in a few years,' he warned.
At the Brussels meeting, Robert Mager of BMW presented the view of a consortium of car manufacturers, engineering firms and researchers that the remaining technical problems to commercialisation of CO2 technology could be solved within 2-3 years.
The industry source said that this was a conservative estimate. But car makers are wary of losing market share if they pass on the higher costs to customers, so are unlikely to move to commercialisation without being pushed. Despite this, some manufacturers want to be first with the new technology. Honda and Toyota already have niche models on the market in California and Japan.
He predicted that German manufacturers would quickly cut the additional costs once they decided that the writing was on the wall. For instance, a joint air conditioning and heating system could offer a lower overall cost. Car makers could also achieve faster payback by selling initially in hot climates where people might pay a premium for the more rapid cooling properties offered by CO2 systems.
Japanese and German manufacturers are under the greatest pressure to move away from HFCs. Last October, the Japanese government introduced a tax payable by car owners to cover the cost of removing HFCs from end-of-life vehicles. In Germany, the Environment Agency and Ministry have called car manufacturers in regularly to discuss progress. An Agency official said that national legislation will be drawn up if the European Commission does not propose its own this autumn.
In its last annual report, the German car manufacturers association,VDA, urged the Government to recognise progress through a voluntary initiative and predicted that this would bear fruit in the medium term. It claimed that the first standard-production vehicle using CO2 air-conditioning was likely to be a German product.
ENDS has learned that the Commission's Environment Directorate feels that it needs to legislate. It believes that commercially viable alternatives should be on the market within 5-10 years.
It is proposing to legislate for a phase-out of HFC-134a beginning in 2008, with an annual 20% increase in share for cars free of HFC-134a leading to a total ban in 2012. Manufacturers would be free to adopt any alternative - including HFC-152a, which has a global warming potential which is less than 10% of HFC-134a.
The Environment Directorate is also considering offering 'early mover' credits so that if car makers achieve a greater conversion rate in earlier years they will be entitled to limited derogations from targets in later years. It was due to negotiate its proposals with other Directorates in May.