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Investigation uncovers continent-wide illegal trade of hazardous materials: 'Traffickers are becoming more sophisticated'

"[Tighter restrictions] will only work if they are implemented quickly and effectively."

"[Tighter restrictions] will only work if they are implemented quickly and effectively."

Photo Credit: iStock

A dangerous product is being trafficked across Europe and has gotten the attention of criminals and law enforcement in numerous countries. A new undercover investigation has revealed that the problem is more widespread than previously thought and that smugglers are getting better at avoiding detection.

However, it's not drugs that are being trafficked — authorities are cracking down on the illegal trade of hydrofluorocarbons.   

What is happening? 

Hydrofluorocarbons are gases mostly used for refrigeration and air conditioning. HFCs harm the environment and are being phased out worldwide. 

The Environmental Investigation Agency initially revealed the issue of HFCs being trafficked five years ago. It released its first report in 2021 that focused on the supply from China and Romanian criminals smuggling the gas throughout Europe. 

In its latest investigation, the EIA expanded the scope of its research to other countries, like Bulgaria and Spain. It found that, despite the previous report, the illegal HFC trade business is booming, and criminals are improving their business practices. 

According to the EIA: "The evidence suggests that black market traders and traffickers are becoming more sophisticated and adapting their tactics to evade detection."

Why is the illegal trade of HFCs concerning? 

The EIA refers to HFCs as "climate-wrecking super-pollutant refrigerant gases" because of their exceptional ability to heat our atmosphere. While carbon dioxide and methane rightfully get a lot of attention in the world of toxic, planet-heating gases, HFCs are far worse per pound. 

Although they represent a small percentage of polluting gases, they can be thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

All of these gases act like an invisible blanket around Earth. The more gases we expel into the air, the thicker the blanket gets, heating our planet at an accelerated and unnatural rate. The rising temperatures are directly responsible for our rapidly changing climate. 

Extreme weather events like powerful storms, out-of-control wildfires, and devastating droughts have been increasing around the world, and they will continue to get worse unless we drastically limit the amount of polluting gases we produce.

What is being done?

In 2016, 197 countries adopted the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which aims to reduce the worldwide production of HFCs by more than 80% over 30 years. The E.U. recently revised its 2014 F-gas Regulation to align more with the Kigali Agreement. The new measures tighten HFC restrictions and facilitate better enforcement and monitoring. 

EIA Senior Climate Campaigner Fin Walravens favors the tighter regulations but understands that time is not on their side. 

"These will only work if they are implemented quickly and effectively," she said, per EIA.

The EIA is pushing for more awareness of HFC trafficking among law enforcement agencies across Europe. However, Spain's Guardia Civil is fully aware and is taking a unique approach to fighting the illegal trade. The agency is treating it like organized crime, and it's working. Raids in 2022 seized about 121 tons of different types of gases worth over $11 million. 

Walravens also explained that there are alternatives to HFCs that we can use. 

"There are F-gas free natural refrigerants that have been around for a long time, are very energy efficient, and are certainly gaining popularity across the world," she said. 

"Ultimately, the illegal trade in HFCs is fueled 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," Walravens added.

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