Climate Week: Fighting climate crime with Customs – a letter from Kiev

This week I’m in Kiev, where an international meeting is looking into the threat posed by the growing criminal trade in climate-wrecking refrigerant gases.

Customs and enforcement officers from 19 countries are here in the Ukraine capital, along with experts from UN agencies, the World Customs Organisation and industry.

Compared to drug and arms smuggling or human trafficking, the illegal trade in hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and ozone-depleting hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are widely used in air-conditioning and refrigeration, might seem like small fry.

Clare Perry at the Kiev meeting (c) UN Environment

But the fact is that just one seizure of these super pollutants can have a huge impact because these are powerful greenhouse gases and a significant cause of global warming – just a fortnight ago, 23 tonnes of illegal HFCs were seized in Greece which, if undetected, would have ended up being used in Europe releasing emissions equivalent to almost 14,000 cars driving for an entire year.

The stark reality is that the Earth’s climate simply can’t afford to keep taking these kind of hits, not with the window for action to effectively combat the current climate crisis closing swiftly.

So I’m here in Kiev to share the findings of our latest investigations into the illegal HFC trade, contained in our recent report Doors Wide Open.

As well as briefing the meeting on our findings, I also had the opportunity to include additional recommendations for those countries present, most of which are not in the European Union but which serve as transit countries for HFCs being illegally smuggled into the EU. Although their Customs operations currently have no legal obligation to control the export or transit of HFCs, early monitoring and reporting of the HFC trade is vital in preparation for implementing the Kigali Amendment, a legally binding multilateral deal reached in 2016 to drive the phase-down of HFCs in both developed and developing countries.

Front cover of our report entitled Doors Wide Open: Europe's flourishing illegal trade in hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)

The main conclusion of Doors Wide Open was that the illegal HFC trade represented more than 16 per cent of the legal trade in 2018, although there are encouraging signs that EU member states are rising to the enforcement challenge, with multiple seizures in several countries and a new member state customs initiative led by Poland.

But where has this damaging trade in powerful greenhouses gases come from?

We started campaigning for strong European legislation on HFCs in 2010 and in 2014 were delighted when the EU agreed its landmark F-Gas Regulation to cut the use of HFCs. We didn’t get everything we’d pushed for, but it remains world-leading legislation and streets ahead of the Kigali Amendment in terms of ambition.

Now it’s under threat as HFC supply cuts and price hikes within the EU have led to a flourishing illegal trade in HFCs, particularly from EU border countries.

At the same time, developing countries are still phasing out ozone-depleting HCFCs – which creates additional opportunities for criminals to profit from illegal transboundary trade.

Customs is on the front line of controlling this trade but the job of a customs officer is not an easy one. Preventing smuggling and illegal trade is just one part of the job; collecting revenues is equally or often more important.

Customs officers deal with a vast array of products covered by an even vaster range of legislation at national, regional and international levels. The first time I entered a customs warehouse to film HCFC seizures (they’d been misleadingly labelled as HFCs), in Bangkok back in 2012, it was full of handbags! Customs officers must control or monitor counterfeit goods, alcohol, hazardous waste, illegal wildlife trade, toxic toys, guns, drugs and cigarettes. Control of plastic waste trade has recently risen up the agenda, with an amendment under the Basel Convention this year that will start to control the dumping of low-grade plastic waste in developing countries, an environmental crime which is finally hitting the public consciousness.

Meeting with Thai Customs in 2012 (c) EIAimage

All these products enter countries via different borders through different means; by land, sea and air, in large containers and in iso-tanks, or in small packages easily concealed in a passenger vehicle.

The critical role of these front-line environmental enforcers in protecting the ozone layer and climate has inspired the Global Montreal Protocol Award for Customs and Enforcement Officers. Thirteen awards for tackling illegal trade in HFCs and ozone-depleting substances were given to officials from Europe and Central Asia during this week’s meeting – the awards are important recognition for individuals dedicated to their challenging jobs and a useful way to raise awareness and, hopefully, inspire others to follow suit.

But much more needs to be done.

Efforts to date have been piecemeal and appear to lack follow-through, such as going beyond seizures to secure prosecutions and meaningful penalties which will serve to deter criminals. Busting HFC smugglers in the EU is also hampered by a weak system for monitoring legal quotas, which means that customs operations do not have access to the information they need to do their jobs.

Illegal HFCs seized in Poland this year

With ozone-depleting substances, HFC’s immediate predecessors, Europe had a world-leading licensing system – anyone wanting to import or export ozone-depleting gases had to obtain a licence for each separate shipment. This not only enabled close monitoring and control over how much a company could import but it also facilitated linkages with the exporting country’s licensing system, allowing exporting customs to verify import licenses before a shipment was sent.

We strongly advocated that this type of approach should part of the HFC quota system when the F-Gas Regulation was being negotiated back in 2012-14 – but member states and the European Commission were reluctant to invest and industry complained that it would be too burdensome.

Given the scale of illegal HFC trade, the climate emergency and the cost to government revenues (Greece estimated a revenue loss of €20 million in 2018 from illegal HFCs), it must now be time to reconsider and invest in a watertight licensing system and a coordinated strategic approach to tackling climate crime.