1232 GMT March 27, 2019
The gas, trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11, is supposed to be phased out worldwide under the Montreal Protocol, the global agreement to protect the ozone layer. In May, however, scientists published research showing that CFC-11 levels in the atmosphere had begun falling more slowly. Their findings suggested significant new emissions of the gas, most likely from East Asia, nytimes.com reported.
Evidence then uncovered by The New York Times and the Environmental Investigation Agency pointed to rogue factories in China as a likely major source.
Now, the EIA. has prepared a report that it says bolsters the finding that Chinese factories are behind the return of CFC-11.
Independent laboratory tests ‘clearly confirm the use of CFC-11 in three enterprises’ in China, the agency said in the report. It plans to submit the work this week in Quito, Ecuador, where delegates from nearly 200 countries are attending a Montreal Protocol meeting on the status of efforts to repair the ozone layer.
Avipsa Mahapatra, head of the climate change campaign at the EIA, said the Chinese authorities should make thorough regulatory changes that make underground CFC-11 production impossible. “Simply clamping down a few enterprises without systemic changes could mean that similar illegal enterprises pop up in other regions,” she said.
But definitive answers and solutions to the problem of CFC-11 appear to be some way off.
Chinese officials have said they have already acted vigorously to close rogue chemical makers. They have also asserted that the CFC-11 emissions in question are too large to be solely from those operations.
Scientists have said that they need more time and data to pin down the causes of the CFC-11 resurgence.
“When it comes to definitive answers, I think we have to first emphasize that this mystery has yet to be solved,” said Keith Weller, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, which helps organize the ozone layer talks.
The CFC-11 mystery has wide implications. The ozone layer has been healing, but the return of a banned substance is an alarming breach in one of the world’s most effective environmental pacts and could slow the layer’s recovery.
CFC-11 is also a potent greenhouse gas. If it is leaking directly into the atmosphere from factories, even more gas may be held in the products made in those factories — for example, in insulation foam — and may enter the atmosphere when those products are eventually destroyed.
Scientists discovered decades ago that CFC-11 and other manufactured chemicals used as refrigerants and aerosols and in the production of insulating foams were destroying the ozone layer, which shields humans, crops and animals from the most damaging solar rays.
In 1987, countries agreed on the Montreal Protocol to phase out such gases, steadily replacing them with ever safer substitutes. The protocol has been praised as a model environmental initiative.
The Chinese government has said it will investigate and stamp out any illicit production off CFC-11, and Chinese industrial associations have vowed that their businesses will not use the chemical.
Officials announced last month that the police had broken up an illegal CFC-11 plant in Henan, a rural heartland province, and found more 30 metric tons of the chemical on the site, according to an official report.
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A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment, Liu Youbin, told a news conference on Wednesday that inspectors had checked 1,172 businesses over recent months and found evidence of CFC-11 in only 10.
“If it was just those small, illegal roaming producers, the volume could not be that much,” Chen Liang, an official with the ministry who oversees international cooperation, including in ozone layer policy, said in an interview.
Weller also said the estimated new emissions of CFC-11, in the order of roughly 13,000 metric tons per year, appeared to be too great to come from illegal production alone.
Yet Chen also said there were daunting barriers to regulating China’s vast numbers of chemical and foam-making businesses. By his count, there were about 3,000 businesses in the foam sector. But the numbers of scattered, under-the-radar plants could be much higher.
Furthermore, Chen said, local inspectors across China can lack the equipment to quickly measure levels of CFC-11 or the chemicals used to make it. Fly-by-night chemical producers were hard to uncover and punish, he added.
“After they finish up production, everyone leaves,” Chen said. “This is very difficult to attack.”