By Courtney Suciu
In the 1970s, scientists first warned of a hole in the layer of the atmosphere that protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. In the ‘80s, the Montreal Protocol – one of the most successful international agreements regarding climate change – put strict limitations on the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a major contributor to the depletion of the ozone layer. In the ‘90s, evidence suggested that we were on the right track. It looked like the ozone layer could make a complete recovery by the middle of the next century.
But in spring 2018, a disconcerting discovery was made. It turns out tons of CFCs are still being released into the atmosphere, setting progress back by decades.
Where are these emissions coming from? And can the ozone layer still be saved?
“Last month,” The New York Times1 reported in June, “scientists disclosed a global pollution mystery: a surprise rise in emissions of an outlawed industrial gas that destroys the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer.”
Times reporters and private investigators collected evidence including documents, interviews and advertisements to find out where the emissions were coming from. All signs pointed to Xingfu, “a scrappy industrial boomtown” in rural China. Here, small factories continued to make or use CFC-11, a banned version of the chemical frequently used in foam insulation.
“The scale of this environmental crime is devastating, with massive potential impact on the climate the ozone layer,” Alexander Von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told The New York Times.
The challenge of enforcing CFC bans in China is two-fold. First, it’s easy for these small-scale industries to be overlooked by officials – many of these factories don’t even have names are situated in remote areas. Some plants move around, closing down in one location and popping up in another as a way to evade attention and punishment.
Second, CFC-11 is cheaper than alternative chemicals, which many of the small refrigeration and insulation factories can’t afford to use. So, demand is high because demand for products made with them is high – and, ironically, on the rise along with rising environmental consciousness.
“Paradoxically,” according to The Times, “underground demand for CFC-11 may have been partly spurred by China’s increasingly strict environmental standards. The government has demanded better insulation of building so they waste less energy, and that means more foam.”
But some experts are not convinced these Chinese factories are the sole culprit. Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Program, which oversees the Montreal Protocol, told reporters: “We have to dig deeper. Based on the scale of detected emissions there is good reason to believe the problem extends beyond these uncovered cases.”
Established September 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is an international treaty that includes legally binding goals to phase out the use of CFCs and other chemicals which contribute to the deterioration of the ozone layer.
This agreement, along with the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer (which the Montreal Protocol supplements), is an unprecedented example of international cooperation – and the UN’s first universally ratified treaties, signed by 196 states, plus the European Union.
As required by the Montreal Protocol, top scientists from around the world prepare a report on the state of the ozone layer every three or four years. By 1995, the report was cause for optimism. Newsday2 writer Robert Cooke reported that measurements indicated that amounts of one of the first chemicals regulated by the treaty was “disappearing from the air more quickly than expected.”
But in July 2018, more than 140 national delegates, civil society representatives, industry stakeholders and environmental agencies gathered for the annual Open-Ended Working Group of the Montreal Protocol “against the backdrop of an urgent challenge to 30 years of ozone recovery,” according to a news release issued by the UN Environmental Program3.
The protocol’s Scientific Assessment Panel shared with the group these key findings, as outlined in the statement:
Since 2013, the annual decline in CFC-11 has been only half as fast as it was over the previous decade (2002-2012)
Emissions of CFC-11 increased after 2012 and have remained elevated in all the years since
Monitoring data currently available suggest Eastern Asia as the source of these emissions
The scale of observations suggests unreported production of CFC-11 after the 2010 global phase-out
Despite accounts presented to the parties, the exact sources off these emissions have yet to be fully verified and accounted for
“We cannot relax our vigilance for a second,” Ozone Secretariat Tina Birmpili said in the meeting’s opening remarks. “We cannot let this go unaddressed. Any illegal consumption and production of CFC-11 demands decisive action.”
The 30th Annual Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol will convene November 5-9, 2018. This is the formal decision-making arm of the protocol who will determine what needs to be done in response to breaches of the agreement, how to move forward with preservation of the ozone layer.
Well, to put it simply, “Without the ozone layer, earth would be effectively sterilized and devoid of life as we know it.”
This is according to Allen E. Goodman of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, in a case study titled “The Negotiations Leading to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substance that Deplete the Ozone Layer.”4
The document is an eye-opening and thought-provoking read in a few ways. Goodman’s case study not only provides a comprehensible summary of how the ozone layer functions, and the consequences of its depletion (“Scientists calculate that for decreases in ozone in the stratosphere even as small as 1 percent, thousands of people are more likely to develop skin cancer and other diseases...”), but it also provides insight into the complex development of the Montreal Protocol.
As scientists in the ‘80s explored the relationship between CFCs (which were ubiquitous at the time, found in hundreds of products, from egg cartons, bicycle seats and stuffed animals, to air conditioners, ice machines and soda fountain dispensers, as well as all kinds of aerosol dispensers) the CFC industry came out strongly opposed to “premature” international CFC regulation or bans. This complicated international efforts to preserve the ozone layer.
“It is not unusual for American industries to become deeply involved in framing U.S. position toward international negotiations that affect corporate profits and jobs. In fact, the Congress mandates that the private sector be consulted by the State and Commerce departments and the Office of the Special Trade Representative on most international trade negotiations…For, if an agreement is negotiated that industry cannot support or is one on which its lobby groups were not at least asked to submit their views, the risk is great that Congress will not ratify the agreement or will seek to change what has been negotiated…
Goodman described how this put the chief U.S. negotiator at the Montreal Protocol in a tough position of having to ensure that the viewpoint of CFC industry lobbyists was considered, even as he and his department disagreed with many of their talking points.
If he didn’t address the concerns of CFC industry lobbyists, any international agreement would be worthless if rejected by Congress and not signed into U.S. law. Negotiators would have to go back to the drawing board to revisit the terms – not a simple undertaking, considering nearly 200 international parties were involved.
This case study concludes with a series of questions designed for students of diplomatic studies to consider how they would approach and navigate such circumstances in the position of the U.S. negotiator of the Montreal Protocol. The questions are valuable for anyone who is interested in environmental issues, corporate responsibility, and international relations.
But really, they are worth considering for anyone who is impacted by the decisions of these government agencies and industry lobbyists – so, all of us. Especially going into the November meeting of Montreal Protocol when next steps will be decided in the preservation of the ozone layer.
For further research
Environmental Issues Online
This comprehensive database includes multimedia content related to such climate change issues as preservation of the ozone layer, Including animated models of the projected polar atmospheric ozone levels from 1974 to 2065, had CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) not been banned. Request a complimentary trial.
A collection of documentary films and footage from around the globe curated for deeper insight and understanding of climate change issues, including:
Abbasi, S. A., & Abbasi, T. (2017). Ozone Hole: Past, Present, Future.
Andersen, S. O., & Sarma, K. M. (2012). Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History.
Bankobeza, G. M. (2005). Ozone Protection: The International Legal Regime.
Grundmann, R. (2002). Transnational Environmental Policy: Reconstructing Ozone.
Sethi, R. (Ed.). (2012). Ozone and Ozone Depletion: Sources, Environmental Impact and Health.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu