Study points to CFC production

Scientists writing a study published in the journal Nature were surprised that levels of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere weren’t decreasing at the normal rates. CFCs do a lot of damage to the ozone layer that protects the Earth from UV light from the Sun, so they were banned internationally by the Montreal Protocol—but somehow, some are being released

The New York Times thinks they have found a possible source. Some factories in remote provinces of China have continued to use black-market CFCs. According to one of the managers of a factory, they didn’t know CFCs were illegal—they were simply choosing the cheapest option.

CFCs were commonly used as foaming agents for products like refrigerators.  The first CFC, with the brand name Freon, was produced in the 1930s as refrigerant. Early on, CFCs were praised for being nontoxic and nonflammable, as compared to earlier refrigerants like ammonia and propane.

CFCs are made of carbon, fluorine and chlorine. When it reacts with UV sunlight, chlorine is broken off. The chlorine then reacts with and destroys ozone. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

It was only later that we really learned the harm the CFCs were doing. While they did wonders for refrigerators, air conditioners and foam production, they were also harming the ozone in the atmosphere. When CFCs are exposed to UV sunlight, a chlorine atom breaks off. The chlorine then reacts with ozone in the atmosphere and creates molecular oxygen (O2), destroying the ozone.

Ozone is important because it blocks most of the UV light from the Sun from reaching the Earth’s surface.  UV light causes sun burns and contributes to skin cancer. As it became apparent that the ozone layer was being destroyed, countries started to come together to fight the problem. There was some uncertainty about what was causing it, but after further study, it seemed that the connection to CFCs was probable enough to act on.

In 1987, a group of countries agreed to the Montreal Protocol, which called for a gradual removal of CFCs from use. The chemicals were originally replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) which do not deplete ozone (and even can be involved in creating ozone). However, HCFCs are a very potent greenhouse gas and adjustments and amendments to the Montreal Protocol have implemented a gradual phase out of HCFCs as well.

The ‘ozone hole’ which appeared over Antarctica was a major motivator for the Montreal Protocol. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The Montreal Protocol is one of the success stories of international environmental cooperation. It is the most endorsed environmental treaty ever created, with 197 countries having signed it. The same countries have also ratified four amendments, with a fifth in progress. The ozone layer has started to make a comeback and CFC levels have dropped steadily.

Part of the success of the Montreal Protocol comes from its gradual implementation and its use of different timelines for developing and developed countries. The Protocol gives timeline benchmarks for gradual reduction of CFC production and use. The levels for developing countries were designed to be slower than those for developed countries… Now, all of the signatories are under near total bans on production and use.

Until recently, it seemed like the levels scientists saw were pretty much in accordance with the ban. Some black-market use from old production was expected and seen, but overall, the Protocol seemed to have done its job.

Most of the chlorine in the atmosphere comes from human-made CFCs. Only 18% comes from natural sources. (Figure courtesy of NOAA)

Which is why it was so surprising that CFC levels weren’t decreasing like they were expected to.

The authors of the study noticed that not just were the levels rising, but they were rising so much that they seemed to indicate not just continued use, but new production. Someone was making CFCs.

China has been combatting illegal production since the Protocol went into effect. China is one of the largest producers of refrigerators and AC units in the world, so CFCs continued to appeal to factories looking to cut costs. Even the left-over stores have a potential for major impact, according to a recent study.

CFC production sites are fairly easy to set up and the top organizers often escape punishment even if a site is closed by the government. So, they can just move on to another out-of-the-way region and set up another plant. The plants not only create and release CFCs, they often dump toxic waste nearby.

The Chinese government has been working on cracking down on the production, including adding more restrictions on chemicals used to make CFCs. Chinese chemical dealers still offer CFCs in the open, contributing to a global black-market trade in the chemicals. And as the limitations on HCFCs have taken effect, the UN Environment Programme has noticed increased illegal trade of them as well.

The situation highlights some of the difficulties facing international environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol. Developing economies like China and India are major players in global markets, but it can be difficult to convince them to give up opportunities that developed nations had. Implememntation can also be difficult for these countries, as they are producing huge numbers of exports but may also still be developing the organizational resources to effectively enforce controls.

From one perspective, developing countries are paying for the damage done by the U.S. and European countries.

Still, the Chinese government has moved fast to start investigating the situation, often showing up just days or even hours after the NYT team. Many of the factories claimed they did not know the harm the chemicals caused or that alternatives could be cheaper. Old equipment was also an issue, since it would need to be re-fitted for new chemicals.

With these efforts, the Montreal Protocol will hopefully soon again be the success story it was and a model for international cooperation in the face of environmental threats.