To save on the higher cost of alternatives, Chinese foam manufacturers are using banned chlorofluorocarbons that are considered more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming
There were cheers of jubilation among the international community in January this year when US space agency NASA reported a decline in ozone-depleting substances (ODS), specifically chlorine, since 2005. “We see very clearly that chlorine from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCS) is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said NASA. CFCS are chemical compounds that eventually rise into the stratosphere and stay there for a long time before being broken apart by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and releasing chlorine atoms that go on to destroy ozone molecules. Stratosph eric ozone protects life on the planet by absorbing these ultraviolet radiation, which can cause skin cancer and cataracts, suppress immune systems and damage plants. The success was attributed to the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty signed in 1987, to protect the ozone layer from depletion. Under it, the production and consumption of all CFCS officially ended in developed countries in 1996 and in developing countries by 2010 (see ‘On the path...’).
But the euphoria did not last long. Within a few months, in May, research published in scientific journal Nature found a significant rise of 25 per cent in the emissions of a banned ODS, CFC-11 or trichlorofluoromethane, between 2012 and 2016. CFC-11 not only has high potential for ozone depletion, it is also considered 4,750 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.
China, the defaulter
While there can be multiple reasons behind the rising emissions of CFC-11, the Nature study prompted the UK-based non-profit, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), to probe into the matter. In July, it found that China’s foam making industry was illegally using CFC-11 as a blowing agent. Since CFC-11 is cheap, compared to other alternatives, the industry uses it to manufacture polyurethane foam or PU foam, which is widely used as an insulation material in buildings as well as in refrigerators, freezers, coolers and heaters.
For over four decades, the ozone hole has steadily appeared every year. However, at a time when it is finally beginning to show signs of healing, EIA’s probe has startled the inter-national community.
The sudden peak in emissions over the four-year period, despite the ban of CFCS, shows laxity in environmental regulations in China, home to over one-third of the global foam industry. According to the Executive Committee of the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund, there are over 3,500 foam-manufacturing units in China.
As part of its probe, the EIA surveyed 21 Chinese foam manufacturers and found that 18 were using CFC-11 illegally to save on the higher cost of alternatives, such as hydrochloro- fluorocarbons like HCFC-141b, which is to be phased out in China by 2026.
This is not the first time China has been implicated in illegal production, consumption and trade of banned ODS. Earlier, investigations by EIA and the United Nations Environment Programme between 2009 and 2013 found that ODS constituted the 12th largest global black market, accounting for US $67.7 million in 2011. Since then, trends in gases being illegally produced and smuggled have changed as the world enters the phase-out period for HCFCS. A 2016 update by EIA on illegal smuggling networks found that while illicit trade of CFCs had reduced, it was replaced in the black market by HCFCS. In 2014, a discrepancy of nearly 30 per cent existed in the supply chain of HCFC-22 or chlorodifluoromethane as compa red to the export quantities reported by China. The country is responsible for about 70 per cent of the global HCFC production and more than 50 per cent of the consumption.
Remarking on the situation, EIA climate campaign leader, Clare Perry, admits that it is extremely difficult to estimate the extent of illegal ODS trade. “Much more needs to be done by the Parties to address the issue. Current data is inadequate, many don’t report illegal ODS findings and most do not give adequate resources to customs and other enforcement officials for adequate monitoring. I hope that the recent CFC-11 issue will act as a wake up call to the Parties, who will advocate stronger measures,” Perry says (see interview ‘Continued emissions...’).
China is also the world’s largest consumer of ODS. At its peak in 1998, consumption stood at 167,000 tonnes. By 2013, the figure fell to 15,690 ton nes, according to the UN. By compa rison, South Korea, the second-highest consumer of ODS, had an ann ual consumption of over 2,000 tonnes.
Experts say for an aspiring nation like China balancing the economy and the environment is often a tricky matter. As the Chinese economy flourished in the past three decades, it suffered massive ecological damage. At present, the Asian giant is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and faces multiple challenges in tackling pollution related to air, water and soil. Environmental degradation costs it anywhere between 3 and 10 per cent of its Gross National Income, says American think tank Council on Foreign Relations. Millions of premature deaths and increasing burden of illnesses such as cancer have prompted China to tighten environ mental regulations. Since 2015, the country has strengthened its existing environmental protection mechanisms by bringing in new laws.
Rectifying the situation
Amid international scrutiny, China has revamped its Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) to address non-adherance to green regulations. Harsh penalties for environmental degradation and the imposition of taxes on polluting industrial units have been introduced under a 10-year environmental policy. It also pledged biennial inspections of erring indus tries. Till the beginning of the year, it had penalised over 30,000 compa nies and 6,000 officials.
For a country trying to rectify its reputation as a serial environmental offender, the latest EIA investigation is nothing short of an embarrassment for the government. To drive home the recent prioritisation of environmental protection, the Chinese government acted swiftly after the EIA revelations. Within days of publication of the EIA report, China announced the creation of a special task force to deal with violators and vowed to track down the source of illegal CFC-11.
A spokesperson of the MEE issued a statement saying that China has always regarded legal enforcement regarding ODS as an important part of its daily enforcement. “This special action is a wide-ranging one in recent years. The purpose is to find and combat illegal activities involving ODS, especially CFC-11, and ensure compli ance results.” In this case, additional resources are to be spent on identifying the sources of the illegal gas, the government confirms.
While China promises to make every effort possible to stamp out this latest controversy over the illicit use of CFC-11, the spotlight is back on the Montreal Protocol and its effectiveness in dealing with the prevention of ozone depletion. The Protocol requires sustained political will and increased financial support to developing countries to ensure that they meet the future challenges in eliminating ODS.
The rise in CFC-11 in the atmos phere rattled delegates during the 40th meeting of the Open-Ended Working Group of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol that met in Vienna, just a week after EIA’s investigation became public. The meeting opened with words of caution against complacency and a call for renewed vigour in implementing the Protocol. “It is in these moments that the mechanisms of the international community are more valuable than ever. We cannot relax our vigilance for a second. Any illegal consumption and production of CFC-11 demands decisive action,” Executive Secretary of the Ozone Secretariat, Tina Birmpili, said.
`Continued emissions will delay ozone layer recovery'
How has China reacted to the recent findings? To what extent flouting norms by the foam industry would impact the ozone layer recovery?
Our findings reveal how the foam manufacturing industry in China was still using chlorofluorocarbon (CFC)-11, an ozone-depleting substance (ODS) phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Our report shows this is responsible for increased emissions, but there can be other sources as well. There is a need for increased urgency with which China and other signatories to the Montreal Protocol need to deal with the issue. We shared with China the details of our study before the release. The government took immediate steps to launch an investigation. Illegal use of CFC-11 has been confirmed, but not all companies identified in the report are implicated. Investigations are still on. There is no definitive analysis, but if emissions continue to rise, it can delay the ozone layer recovery for over a decade.
How well has China fared in strengthening environmental protection laws?
China's environmental protection has been progressive in some areas, but deficient in others. Its commitment to the Paris Agreement is welcome as well as its decision to shut down the domestic ivory market in the beginning of this year. Chinese government agencies, like the customs, have been prioritising environmental crimes recently. But the country has done nothing to regulate the import of illegal timber. With respect to the use of CFCs, we have urged the government to look more carefully into what is still prompting the foam industry to not adopt the alternatives.
Several reports suggest the closing up of the ozone hole. To what extent is this true?
The ozone hole hasn't shrunk over the past two decades. Every year, its extent depends on the level of ODS in the atmosphere and the temperature. This year, for the first time, the ozone hole is on the path to recovery, but it will still take decades to reach the pre-CFC levels. Unfortunately, the discovery of illegal CFC-11 emissions shows we must remain vigilant.
Are gases like dichloromethane, which are not under the ambit of the Montreal Protocol, responsible for rising global emissions?
We are concerned about the emissions of dichloromethane, short-lived ODS and nitrous oxide. Many of these chemicals were not included in the Protocol, as they were not considered a major threat to the ozone layer. To include them now would mean an amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Inclusion depends on whether they pose a risk to the ozone layer recovery as well as the political will of the Parties.
(Ths article was first published in the 16-30th September issue of Down To Earth under the headline 'Hole in the sky?').
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