COMMENT: Embattled Mercedes finds unlikely refrigerant friend

By Simon Warburton | 19 July 2013

Greenpeace has thrown its weight behind Mercedes in its coolant battle

Greenpeace has thrown its weight behind Mercedes in its coolant battle

What on earth is going on between France and Germany?

A once-seemingly innocuous difference of opinion surrounding automakers' use of one refrigerant versus another has erupted into a full-scale inter-governmental row that has seen Mercedes-Benz blocked from selling its A, B and CLA models in France.

The French appear to insist the German manufacturer's use of the r134a refrigerant is vastly more polluting in terms of CO2 emissions and have refused point blank to certify Mercedes models using the chemical.

Across the Rhine however, Mercedes is doggedly sticking to its guns maintaining it is in full compliance with EU regulations requiring conformity and that the majority of manufacturers currently use r134a.

Well maybe. But Germany appears to be in a minority here. This week's meeting of the rather austere-sounding Technical Committee on Motor Vehicles in Brussels, seemed to pit 27 European Union member states' road safety authorities firmly against Berlin.

The dispute has seen Mercedes diverting models away from France for some weeks now and despite the challenging conditions France is undoubtedly facing, that is not good news for anyone, let alone the French dealers having to find temporary, alternative vehicles for customers while Paris and Berlin do battle.

I've been attempting to navigate my way around the byzantine complex series of ministries in France that appear to be - or not - responsible for certifying new vehicles - but with little success [note that Warburton is both fluent in French and has lived in the country - ed].

From pillar to post I've battled through the economic, industry and interior ministries, only to be told to ring one department which then tells me to call the other one.

At the heart apparently of this maze of bureaucracy lies the Systeme d'Immatriculation des Vehicules or SIV, ultimately responsible for giving the nod - or in this case withholding certification.

But despite the undoubted - and surely sincerely-held concerns of those looking to reduce the vast amount of CO2 we as a society still pump into the atmosphere - is there something more to this than meets the eye?

France is struggling with some appallingly challenging economic difficulties at the moment. The wave of euphoria that greeted the overtly socialist Francois Hollande's election as president and the appointment of an equally left-wing government - has been rapidly replaced by the chilling realities of economic struggle.

Massive unemployment that is currently 3.2m or 10.2% and rising, a huge deficit and a fear the best talent will flee abroad, remember British prime minster David Cameron saying he would "roll out the red carpet" for French brains?, has left the country reeling as austerity measures, for so-long unheard of, are becoming a stark reality.

And in the heart of that maelstrom lies the once all-powerful French auto industry and its highly militant unions who are eyeing their socialist government with deep suspicion.

Of the big two, it is clearly PSA Peugeot-Citroen that continues to struggle in Europe - although it would point out its non-Continent sales are holding up well - but the reality is that French job losses - both at OEM and supplier level - are happening and will continue to happen.

So what's that got to with some rather bizarrely-named refrigerants that have managed - despite their dull numbers and letters - to drag in the German federal government and cause such a ruccus?

Well, Mercedes, who I've been talking to a lot concerning this, dropped a small hint at the end of my last conversation.

In between insisting it conformed to the rules and that it had valid type approval for its r134a refrigerant, Mercedes said: "It is more a disappointment for our French sales colleagues that we not in a position to continue this success.

And for good measure: "And our French automotive competitors are also benefiting from this."

So clearly, not only are sales being hurt by the blockade, there's also a hint the main beneficiaries of French intransigence are in fact French companies.

Refusing to let Mercedes sell three of its models in France is not going to save the French car industry.

But as signal of intent from Paris, it could easily be interpreted as a protectionist measure destined to help those at home.

This row is not going away and indeed has escalated almost every day since it first broke into the open with both sides resolutely planting their flags in the ground.

France has received some fairly powerful backing too from that Motor Vehicles Technical Committee, but also from EU trade commissioner, Antonio Tajani, who starkly outlined the directive in his own inimitable technocrat style: "[The] directive requires, inter alia, to use in the air conditioning systems refrigerants with a limited global warming potential. The refrigerant (HFO 1234yf) chosen by industry to be used on MAC to fulfil the obligations of this directive has been considered unsafe by one German manufacturer that continued to use old refrigerant with a much higher air polluting potential."

But just when Mercedes-Benz appeared to be friendless in Europe, what unlikely cavalry should appear riding over the hill, but Greenpeace of all organisations.

In an extraordinary twist, Greenpeace Germany has backed Daimler and indeed gone as far as to say "France is legally, on very thin ice."

According to comments sent to just-auto by Greenpeace in Brussels, the organisation's special projects campaigner, Wolfgang Lohbeck, was not exactly complimentary when asked what he thought about the r1234yf refrigerant's environmental performance.

"Not as rosy as the image presented by its manufacturers, Honeywell and Dupont," said Lohbeck. "The new chemical does indeed contribute less to global warming, but the real impacts of the new generation of CFCs are completely unpredictable.

"Of course it is unfortunate that this means a a longer transition period for r134a. But compared to the establishment of yet another CFC as a successor refrigerant, it is the lesser evil."

Mercedes-Benz has indeed found an ally - for the moment. Is there any compromise possible in this or are both sides digging in for an epic battle?

Time for the politicans to get their act together.