Un­der­min­ing Mon­treal Pro­to­col

To save on the higher cost of al­ter­na­tives, Chi­nese foam man­u­fac­tur­ers are us­ing banned CFCS which are more po­tent than CO2 in caus­ing global warm­ing

Millennium Post - - Mp In Focus - SHREESHAN VENKATESH

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. Strato­spheric ozone pro­tects life on the planet by ab­sorb­ing these ul­tra­vi­o­let ra­di­a­tions, 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.

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 a high po­ten­tial for ozone de­ple­tion, but 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 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 hy­drochlo­roflu­o­ro­car­bons like HCFC141b, 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 the 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 com­pared 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, as 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.

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 tonnes, ac­cord­ing to the UN. By com­par­i­son, South Korea, the sec­ond-high­est con­sumer of ODS, had an an­nual 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 an in­creas­ing bur­den of ill­nesses such as can­cer have prompted China to tighten en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. Since 2015, the coun­try has strength­ened its ex­ist­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion mech­a­nisms by bring­ing in new laws.

Rec­ti­fy­ing the sit­u­a­tion

Amid an in­ter­na­tional scru­tiny, China has re­vamped its Min­istry of Ecol­ogy and En­vi­ron­ment (MEE) to ad­dress non­ad­her­ence 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 in­dus­tries. Till the be­gin­ning of the year, it had pe­nalised over 30,000 com­pa­nies 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 re­sults of com­pli­ance.” 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 at­mos­phere 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 de­mand de­ci­sive ac­tion,” Ex­ec­u­tive Sec­re­tary of the Ozone Sec­re­tar­iat, Tina Birmpili, said.

The sud­den spike in emis­sions of CFC-11 over the four-year pe­riod de­spite the ban shows lax­ity in en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions in China — home to over one-third of the global foam in­dus­try. CFC-11 not only has a high po­ten­tial for ozone de­ple­tion, but it is also con­sid­ered 4,750 times more po­tent than car­bon diox­ide in caus­ing global warm­ing

(The views ex­pressed are strictly per­sonal)

Be­ing the cheaper al­ter­na­tive, ex­ten­sive use of CFC-11 in China is a threat to the grad­u­ally-heal­ing ozone layer (Rep­re­sen­ta­tional Im­age)

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