Rise of Prohibited Ozone-Destroying Chemical Prompts UN Investigation

31 May 2018

Emissions of trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11), a potent greenhouse gas banned by the Montreal Protocol for its ozone-depleting properties, have seen an unexpected increase by 25 percent since 2012, according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Nature.

While the researchers were unable at this point to locate the exact country of origin, they have traced the source of emissions to the East Asia region.

According to the study, the increase in CFC-11 is most likely due to an unreported production of the chemical. Scientists argue that the high level of CFC-11 suggests that an unintentional release, for example as a by-product of industrial processes or a leak from transit or waste, is unlikely.

CFC-11, once widely used in the production of aerosols, refrigerants, solvents, and blowing agents for foams and packing materials, was banned in 1996 and allegedly phased out by 2010.

The emergence of a successful market for alternatives raises questions about the motivation for producing the banned chemical.

“It is not clear why any country would want to start to produce, and inadvertently release, CFC-11, when cost-effective substitutes have been available for a long while,” said Robert Watson, a former NASA scientist.

Restoring the ozone layer

The Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987, is often looked at as the pinnacle of international environmental policy and cooperation. By reducing the production and consumption of global ozone-depleting substances, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the treaty has been instrumental in helping repair the hole in the ozone layer, preventing dangerous radiation from leaking in.

The inclusion of trade measures has been largely credited with the protocol’s success to date. The ban of trade in controlled substances between parties and non-parties, as well as provisions for technical and financial support to help countries gain access to lucrative new markets for alternative chemicals, has incentivised universal ratification of the treaty and, until now, compliance with its provisions.

“The [Montreal Protocol] regime is our hero. It has solved the first great threat to the global atmosphere, and put the stratospheric ozone layer on the path to recovery by 2065. It also has done more to protect the climate than any other agreement,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, adding that the world cannot afford a failure of the protocol.

Stephen Montzaka, lead author of the study, stresses that the findings of the increase in CFC-11 emissions underline the strength of the Montreal Protocol, rather than its failing, arguing that it proves that the measurement and safeguard systems to monitor implementation are doing their job.

Despite the recent spike in CFC-11, its concentration in the atmosphere continues to decrease. However, the rate of decline is significantly slower than projected.

Keith Weller, a spokesman for UN Environment, the host of the Montreal Protocol, stresses the need to quickly identify and shut down the source of emissions to minimise the delay in the repair of the ozone layer. “If these emissions continue unabated, they have the potential to slow down the recovery of the ozone layer,” Weller said in a statement.

A slower repair of the hole in the ozone layer bears risks of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation which can cause chronic health impacts.

Ensuring compliance with the Montreal Protocol

Localising the source of CFC-11 emissions will be a significant endeavour, involving complex scientific methods. Nevertheless, Paul Newman, co-chair of the Montreal Protocol’s Assessment Panel, says that scientists are likely to identify the emitter within one or two years.

The offending country will be responsible for finding the source of emissions and shutting down production.

Scientific advisors to the Montreal Protocol have been tasked with examining the evidence of the increased CFC-11 emissions and report their findings to national representatives by year-end. Parties will then decide on the actions to be taken.

This will mostly likely involve financial and technical support as well as capacity-building to help the country return to compliance. If unsuccessful, the Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol can issue cautions and ultimately suspend rights and privileges under the protocol, including in the areas of trade, technology transfer, and financial support.

ICTSD Reporting; “Scientists race to find who is pumping an incredibly dangerous gas into the atmosphere,” THE OUTLINE, 28 May 2018; “UN to investigate mysterious emissions of banned ozone-damaging CFCs,” CLIMATE HOME NEWS, 17 May 2018; “Rising emissions of ozone-destroying chemical banned by Montreal Protocol,” SCIENCE DAILY, 16 May 2018; “Someone, somewhere, is making a banned chemical that destroys the ozone layer, scientists suspect,” THE WASHINGTON POST, 16 May 2018.

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