BRUSSELS The European Parliament's Environment Committee backed a sweeping ban on the use in fridges and air conditioners of fluorinated gases - greenhouse gases that are many thousands of times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
The plan, which would have to be approved by a plenary session of the parliament and by EU countries before becoming law, goes much further than a proposal from the executive European Commission.
It seeks a gradual phase-out and ban in new equipment by 2020, and to levy a charge on the use of the gases by producers.
Some two decades after international action led to the phase-out of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the Commission is trying to eliminate this new generation of climate-harming chemicals, known as F-gases.
F-gases, used as coolants in air conditioning and in domestic, supermarket and industrial refrigeration, were introduced as a solution easily acceptable to industry, since their production chain resembled that for CFCs.
But their global warming potential, up to 23,000 times more than carbon dioxide, has led the Commission to push for natural non-synthetic alternatives such as ammonia or CO2, which can have high cooling properties when used in refrigeration.
The industry says it supports change, but many argue it needs time to develop the right refrigerants as in some cases the alternatives are flammable, toxic or less energy-efficient.
"We are very disappointed that the Environment Committee has chosen the course of command and control politics with the highest price tag that Europeans will have to pay for," the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment, which represents Europe's heating and cooling industry, said.
Its members include Fujitsu and Honeywell.
Environmental campaigners and some small firms, specialized in natural refrigerants, say the opposite.
They argue that replacement technology is already available and deploying it would help small innovative companies based in Europe to gain an international edge.
"HFC-free alternatives are ready, and this is an opportunity to put European businesses at the forefront of the ever-growing refrigeration and air-conditioning markets while scoring a crucial victory for the climate," said the Environmental Investigation Agency, a group involved in climate issues.
In contrast to a drop in other emissions, F-gases have risen in the European Union by 60 percent since 1990.
They leak into the atmosphere from production plants and during the operation and disposal of products and equipment that contains them.
Separately, the Environment Committee also voted to back a compromise plan to boost the price of allowances on the European Union's carbon market by temporarily removing some of a glut of the permits.
Campaigners welcomed Wednesday's 'yes' vote, although environmentalists say the proposal is very weak and will have a limited impact on low prices, which undermine the market's role in providing an incentive for companies to cut emissions.
But they hope that, if passed by parliament and adopted by member states, it will be a stepping stone towards deeper structural measures, such as the permanent withdrawal of some carbon permits.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)