China, ozone and the CFC-11 mystery

From ToxicLeaks

History of chlorofluorcarbons (CFC)[edit | edit source]

In 1974, scientists who would later become Nobel Prize winners in chemistry published their early findings in the journal Nature. Mario Molina and F. Sherwood warned that widely used CFCs were destroying the protective ozone layer in earth’s atmosphere. They had the potential to remain in the atmosphere for up to 150 years, in concentrations that could reach 30 times the 1970s-era levels.

The chlorofluorocarbon compounds, made of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine, were once a solution to replace flammable and toxic gases, such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide used for refrigeration and in aerosols from the late 1800s into the 1930s. Fatalities from methyl chloride leaks from refrigerators in the 1920s prompted three companies – Frigidaire, General Motors and DuPont – to join forces to develop a safer chemical substitute. The Carrier Corporation, which introduced air conditioning in movie theaters and department stores in the 1920s, soon turned to home units and used CFCs until 1994. By then, more than 50 percent of the company’s sales were in India, China, Vietnam and beyond the U.S. The need for cooling hasn’t slowed since; neither has the demand for insulation and related products.

Yet as Molina and Sherwood knew, along with fellow 1995 Nobel recipient Paul Crutzen of Germany, the CFC solution had solved one problem by creating another. The chemical reaction of the CFCs in the ozone layer, described by the Nobel committee as “the Achilles heel of the biosphere,” was damaging the earth’s ability to filter out solar UV radiation. It was also dumping methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. Something needed to be done, and the global community recognized that it was the entire world’s problem. The Montreal Protocol of 1987 was their response.

The Montreal Protocol[edit | edit source]

The Montreal Protocol was initially ratified with a 20-nation threshold but became the first in United Nations history to achieve universal ratification by all 197 member states. They include China, which signed original documents in 1991, and approved subsequent amendments in 2003, 2010 and 2016.

The environmental protections have changed over the years as first, hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) compounds served an intermediary role and the international community moves to alternatives that will eliminate all ozone depleting substances (ODS). The success in reducing ozone layer impacts has been steady, and scientists have estimated a full atmospheric recovery by 2050. Without it, UV Index measures in the U.S. would reach 30, where 11 is considered extreme; there would have been an additional 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.5 million skin cancer deaths, and 45 million cataracts in the United States alone, with dramatic global warming, according to the U.S. EPA. Yet the UN and other entities celebrating success didn’t factor for the 2018 discovery of illegal CFC-11 production in China.

Illegal production of CFC-11[edit | edit source]

In May 2018, scientists reported a mysterious and alarming trend in CFC-11 observations. Between 2002 and 2012, the rate of decline for CFC-11 in the atmosphere had held steady, according to readings from across the world. But after 2012, the rate at which CFC-11 decreased slowed by about 50 percent, along with a concurrent increase in its presence despite the fact that known production was zero since 2006.

The research findings published in Nature pointed to “unreported new production” in violation of the Montreal Protocol agreement, which called for phaseout by 2010 – the year China also committed to. While the study authors named no sources, their work set off a search for the source of illegal CFC-11.

Investigation points to China[edit | edit source]

Journalists with the New York Times, reporting on the research in May 2018, noted the conclusions that CFC-11 production likely came from East Asia and could delay full recovery in the atmosphere by an additional decade. The CFC-11, according to the Earth System Research Laboratory in the U.S., has a 55-year lifespan: Anything produced after the 2010 ban would start the clock anew for CFC elimination.

The New York Times pursued an investigation that led its staff to Xingfu, China, where the CFC ban was ignored at factories manufacturing foam insulation for appliances including refrigerators, and buildings. China has the world’s largest polyurethane foam market, makes up about 40 percent of the world’s demand and consumption, and accounted for nearly all CFC-11 production in East Asia before the ban.

At one refrigerator manufacturer in Shandong Province, the owner readily admitted to using the banned CFC-11 to keep costs competitive. He said Chinese officials never checked or told them it was wrong. The facility was one of thousands, adding up to an estimated 13,000 metric tons per year of new CFC-11.

In July 2018, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released the full report of a concurrent probe into Chinese CFC-11 production. The watchdog organization found evidence of 18 companies in at least 10 provinces, calculating emissions comparable to levels reported in the Nature study. The EIA said the potential for illegal trade with other nations was high, and the violations could not be isolated incidents. Nearly all companies said CFC-11 was used in 70 to 100 percent of their polyurethane foam production.

The UN Environmental Program issued a statement on June 25, 2018, acknowledging the reports and findings. “Illegal production of CFC-11 is nothing short of an environmental crime, which demands decisive action,” the UNEP statement said. “At the same time, we must continue to dig deeper. Based on the scale of detected emissions there is good reason to believe the problem extends beyond these uncovered cases of illegal production.” The UN said it is working closely with China on the CFC-11 data.

Chinese government response[edit | edit source]

China has made great strides on environment, but even at the lowest levels officials appear to look the other way. One manufacturer in Hebei Province told the EIA team that he had connections with the local environment administration. “When the municipal environmental bureau runs a check, our local officers would call me and tell me to shut down my factory. Our workers just gather and hide together,” he said. Others said the illegal CFC-11 production facilities changed locations often to avoid official inspections. The CFC-11 trade was so open that EIA investigators found some companies through online advertising.

Chinese environmental agents acknowledge they have a problem, including information available to the public online. An October 2017 report said in recent years, Shandong Environmental Protection Bureau and the Public Security Bureau have shut down illegal ODS facilities, most of which were for CFC-11.

Beijing has been slow to respond to the international outcry, but a working group at the Montreal Protocol in Vienna meeting from July 11-14 was expected to place the China CFC-11 issue on the agenda. The nation is subject to trade sanctions since it is a signatory to the Montreal Protocol, but those have never been enforced. Pressure on China to crack down on CFC-11 production is most likely.