In a move cheered by climate activists, the European Union began in 2015 to restrict the production and import of gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are widely used in refrigeration, air-conditioning and manufacturing, but they are also potent greenhouse gases. The first big shortages hit in early 2018. Prices across Europe multiplied sixfold or even more. The EU wanted to push HFC users to adopt pricey, climate-friendlier alternatives. It thought that the engineered shortage would do the trick.
But prices are still not much higher than before the crunch. The reason: HFCs were being smuggled into the EU. The trafficking is still going on. The Environmental Investigation Agency, a watchdog based in London that has dispatched researchers to pose as buyers in Romania, estimates that a quarter of all HFCs in the EU are contraband. A body formed by chemical companies, the European FluoroCarbons Technical Committee (EFCTC), says the proportion may be as high as a third.
Such estimates are rough. But they have not been plucked from thin air. Much can be inferred, for example, by examining officially registered trade flows. Data from Turkish sources show that in 2020 more than four times as much HFC tonnage left Turkey bound for the EU than the latter reported as imported. This suggests that plenty of tanks and canisters holding HFCs enter on the sly.
The smuggling has hit some firms particularly hard. To supply greener alternatives to HFCs, Chemours, an American firm, spent around $500m on r&d and production facilities. But with illegal imports continuing to hold down HFC prices, demand for alternatives has been “stagnating” and even declining…
This has miffed America. In a report last year on barriers to trade, Katherine Tai, the American trade representative, wrote that the eu’s “insufficient oversight and enforcement” of its HFC caps is hurting American chemical firms, not to mention the climate. European officials, for their part, point to the difficulty of preventing profitable
When prices first soared, a car boot could be filled in Ukraine with canisters of an HFC blend called R404A that would sell, hours later, for ten times as much in Poland. Margins have since shrunk as legions have got in on the action. But contraband HFCs are still so valuable that canisters are sometimes given space on boats trafficking migrants from north Africa to Europe…The black market is now dominated by crime syndicates that move large volumes, says the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). Most of the contraband seems to come from China, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
Excerpts from HFC Smuggling: Free as Air, Economist, Feb. 26, 2022