Published: Thu, May 17, 2018
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Scientists uncover likely cheating on ozone treaty

Scientists uncover likely cheating on ozone treaty

The 1987 Montreal Protocol phased out ozone-damaging chemicals like CFC-11 worldwide.

Unless the culprit is found and stopped, the recovery of the ozone layer, which protects life on Earth from damaging UV radiation, could be delayed by a decade.

The scientists say that the increase is likely a result of new, unreported production of the gas, known as CFC-11, probably in East Asia.

CFCs were once widely used in the manufacture of aerosol sprays, as blowing agents for foams and packing materials, as solvents, and as refrigerants. The growth in the size of the ozone "hole" over Antarctica has slowed.

"These considerations suggest that the increased CFC-11 emissions arise from new production not reported to UNEP's Ozone Secretariat, which is inconsistent with the agreed phase-out of CFC production in the Montreal Protocol by 2010", the researchers wrote.

"We're raising a flag to the global community to say, 'This is what's going on, and it is taking us away from timely recovery from ozone depletion, '" said NOAA scientist Stephen Montzka, lead author of the paper, which has co-authors from CIRES, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. "There's a reasonable chance we'll figure out what's happening here", he said. "When things go awry, we raise a flag".

If the source of these new emissions can be identified and controlled soon, the damage to the ozone layer should be minor, Montzka said. "It is critical that we take stock of this science, identify the causes of these emissions and take necessary action", he said.

Emissions from towers
Emissions from towers

CFCs used in buildings and appliances before the ban came into force still leak into the air today.

Staff at the South Pole get ready to release a balloon that will carry an ozone instrument up to 20 miles in the atmosphere, measuring ozone levels all along the. Scientists say there's more of it - not less - going into the atmosphere and they don't know where it is coming from. But they ruled this out too, as the quantities involved are too high, representing a 25% rise in global emissions.

Zaelke said he was surprised by the findings, not just because the chemical has always been banned, but also because alternatives already exist, making it hard to imagine what the market for CFC-11 today would be.

Overall, it is important to underscore that the ozone layer is slowly recovering and ozone-depleting substances are still declining. Reports previous year indicated that production of new chlorine containing chemicals could cause significant delay.

"This treaty can not afford not to follow its tradition and keep its compliance record", he said. Prof Piers Forster, at the University of Leeds, UK, said: "This new study is atmospheric detective work at its finest".

Stephen Montzka from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a team of colleagues report that after a long and predicted decline, production of trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11) - a substance responsible for the second largest destructive impact on the ozone layer - suddenly and mysteriously increased in 2012 and has continued to do so ever since.

Montzka said the world's nations are committed to its enforcement. Even just the publicity about the new CFC-11 production could lead to its shutdown, he said: "Somebody who was maybe doing it purposefully will realise - oh, someone is paying attention - and stop doing it".

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