Illegal refrigerants still smuggled into Europe, says EIA


08 April 2024

Illegal refrigerant gases are still being smuggled into Europe, new research from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) shows.

Five years after the London-based EIA first reported a widespread illegal trade in hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) climate gases, its new investigation has revealed that significant levels of trafficking persist despite the worsening climate emergency. And the evidence suggests that black market traders and traffickers are becoming more sophisticated and adapting their tactics to evade detection.

Commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning, HFCs are currently being phased down under the European Union’s F-Gas Regulation. But organised criminals attracted by high profits are taking advantage of weak law enforcement to meet the demand left by the transition away from the harmful gases.

In 2021, EIA’s report, Europe’s Most Chilling Crime, highlighted Romania as a key entry point for illegal HFCs arriving in the EU. 

The latest investigation, More Chilling Than Ever, uncovered evidence of traders primarily sourcing HFCs from Turkey and China to import illegally into the EU. Trafficked from Bulgaria and other countries on the edge of the bloc, these chemicals are smuggled across the continent to destinations such as Greece, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. 

The new investigation demonstrated that traders are becoming smarter at dodging detection, employing tactics such as avoiding banned disposable cylinders and disguising HFCs as less-regulated hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) refrigerant alternatives. 

EIA Senior Climate Campaigner Fin Walravens warned that the illegal HFC trade not only exacerbates climate change but has also been linked to significant tax evasion. 

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“The EU has recently revised its F-Gas Regulation, offering enforcement agencies additional tools to combat illegal trade – but these will only work if they are implemented quickly and effectively,” she said. 

“As 2024 signals another reduction in HFC supply to EU markets, this risks fuelling demand for illegal HFCs. There is an urgent need for coordinated, proactive enforcement efforts across the EU to combat HFC climate crime.”

More Chilling Than Ever calls on the European Commission and all EU Member States to prioritise implementation of compliance-related measures under the new F-Gas Regulation and to step up enforcement. 

Walravens added: “Globally, HFCs are being phased down under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. As countries around the world begin to reduce HFC consumption, they can learn important lessons from Europe’s experience of illegal trade. 

“There is a clear need to invest and strengthen monitoring, reporting, verification and enforcement under the Montreal Protocol and to build capacity in developing countries, to ensure it is fit to meet the complex challenges posed by the global HFC phase-down.

“Ultimately, the illegal trade in HFCs is fuelled by ongoing demand for the gases, primarily used in the cooling sector, and there is an urgent need to find better ways to keep cool.”

  • More Chilling Than Ever - Tackling Europe's ongoing illegal trade in HFC climate super pollutants is available to download here.