Journalists May Have Uncovered Who Is Emitting Banned Chemicals Into The Ozone Layer


A view of earth's atmosphere from space. NASA

Along with a group of independent investigators, The New York Times believes they may have pinpointed who in the world continues to produce an outlawed chemical responsible for creating the hole in Earth’s ozone layer.  

In May, scientists of a study published in Nature found one of modern history’s most unexpected global pollution mysteries: a surprise rise in emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), in particular CFC-11. This substance, banned under the Montreal Protocol, is used in the production of foam insulation for refrigerators and buildings. 


The 1987 international agreement called for the ban of CFCs with a full phase-out planned for 2010, resulting in a full recovery of the ozone layer by the middle of this century. The results looked promising when research last fall suggested the hole was the smallest it’s been in almost three decades. However, scientists suggested ongoing CFC emissions could change that, but other than a hinted at East Asia source, they had no idea who could be responsible.

Now the evidence points to eight factories in China that have ignored the decades-old treaty.

“You had a choice: Choose the cheaper foam agent that’s not so good for the environment, or the expensive one that’s better for the environment,” Zhang Wenbo, owner of a Chinese refrigerator factory, told the NYT, continuing he and many other small-scale manufacturers widely used CFC-11 to make foam insulation because nobody told his company the outlawed gas was damaging the atmosphere and they “thought it was O.K.”

“Of course, we chose the cheaper foam agent,” said Zhang. “That’s how we survived.”


CFCs were commonly used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays before it became apparent they were depleting the ozone shield, the protective layer blocking the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. These rays break down CFCs, which release chlorine particles that eat the ozone layer. At least 7,000 tonnes (7,700 tons) of CFCs were being produced each year, despite official production being at zero. Total estimates suggest 13 million kilograms (28.6 million pounds) of the chemical, which is the fifth-most common cause of global warming, were produced in recent years – a puzzling notion for scientists considering there are now cheaper, safer alternatives available.

False-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone, and the yellows and reds are where there is more ozone. NASA

"The Montzka paper presents one of the greatest environmental crime mysteries in modern history," Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of environmental watchdog organization the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said in a comment emailed to Newsweek. "The scale of this environmental crime is devastating with massive potential impact on the climate and the ozone layer."  

The organization found the companies using CFC-11 through evidence gathered by surveys and people on the ground. Where there’s smoke, there’s likely to be fire. A climate policy lead said other “well-placed sources” in the industry indicate a wider practice. EIA say they’ve given their findings to the Chinese government and there are mechanisms that could stop future production under the Montreal Protocol.

[H/T: New York Times]


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