The world is showing amazing maturity in tackling the holes in ozone protection

By Rajendra Shende

If you Google ‘Edmund Hillary’, the first person to successful climb Mount Everest, you get 7 million search results. But when you Google ‘George Mallory’, who made the gallant effort to climb Mount Everest 30 years before Hillary and his sherpa Tensing Norgay but who disappeared on the treacherous slopes of the snow-clad summit, you get nearly 17 million references. It is still a mystery if Mallory died on the way to summit or while descending after scaling it.

Given the greater number of results available on Mallory, it would appear the world is more excited about failures and the mysteries surrounding them. It takes more interest in investigating failures than successes. And it gets even more sensational when a post-success inquiry raises doubts about the success itself.

This mystery-drama is now being played out at the UN over the Montreal Protocol on the Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Crafted in 1987, the Montreal Protocol has proved to be different because it has successfully delivered and delivered in time. In 2010, as stipulated in the rules of this universally ratified environmental treaty, all the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the main ozone depleting substance (ODS), was halted in all the producing countries, including India and China. Today, 99% of all ODS, including those other than CFCs, have been phased out in developed and developing countries as per the unanimously agreed timetable.

The UN’s scientific assessment panel has confirmed in their 2018 report that the concentration of all ODS in the atmosphere is declining as a result of the implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Further, it revealed that recovery of the earth’s life shield, the ozone layer, is well on a path to recovery.

The singular success of the Montreal Protocol is considered an example of what humanity can achieve when working together to reverse environmental degradation.

And then came a jerk.

A paper published in prestigious science journal Nature in May stated that the concentration of CFC-11, one of the two most abundant ozone-depleting ODS controlled by the Montreal Protocol, “has unexpectedly stopped its decline and in fact increased in recent years despite a global ban on production in 2010.”

What is the root cause of such slowdown in the decline of the concentration of CFC-11 in the atmosphere that signals impediment in the recovery of the ozone layer? The best scientific brains as well as brash media and brandishing NGOs started brimming with probable answers.

Although production of CFC-11 had stopped since 2010, its stocks from legally produced quantities before January 1, 2010—the date of global phase out of CFC-11—continue to emit in the atmosphere, as was expected. The legal stocks in turn can come from two sub-sources: first, the storages of the CFC-11 if those existed, and second, the equipment and the products that contained CFC-11 (air conditioning in commercial buildings and the insulating foams that are blown with CFC-11). At its peak, about 350,000 metric tonnes of CFC-11 were produced globally per year for such and other minor uses.

The paper that appeared in Nature in May clearly indicated that first beep of slowing down the decline in reality came in 2012. But scientists, overtaken by the successful worldwide closure of CFC-11 production, took some time to ensure that the slowdown was real and not a mistake in measurement. But then after longer investigation and the use of updated models, they concluded that the slowdown in decline in the atmospheric concentration of CFC-11 is a confirmed phenomenon and corresponds to about 13000 metric tonnes of CFC-11 per year added into the huge atmospheric cauldron. That is considered too large an amount to have come from stocks or ‘banks’, as per the Montreal Protocol. So, the answer by rule of elimination pointed towards the new production facility, illegally run somewhere.

Where exactly this production is based has become the subject of the international curiosity and is reverberating in the global meetings on the Montreal Protocol.

One more critical dimension to the scientific finding has triggered heightened excitement among the media and NGOs. It is the result of yet another modelling exercise carried out by the US-based reputed National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It points out that such illegal production may be based in ‘East Asia’, hinting at China.

Many NGOs and some media organisation, obsessed by the desire to be visible, went into high octane mode and even visited China to investigate, although other East Asian producers could be South Korea, North Korea or Japan.

In the meeting of all the parties to the Montreal Protocol that concluded on November 9 in Quito, Ecuador, the countries showed restrain, and took the unanimous and exemplary decision that calls the international scientific and technical community to engage in rigorous scrutiny including the review of assumptions and models used so far. The decision, importantly, does not mention China or even East Asia as region for probable illegal activity.

The meeting, however, clearly belonged to the Chinese delegation who demonstrated a brave and balanced approach when all fingers were pointed to them. Overcoming the obvious classical temptation of choosing the ‘denial mode’, normally seen in such international negotiations, China shared details of a nationwide investigation it carried out involving over 1000 enterprises since the publication of the Nature study and the punitive surveillance conducted in unearthing the concealed illegal production and consumption of CFC-11.

Openly sharing anxiety surrounding the issue, China admitted having identified locations of illegal production of CFC-11, though much smaller than noted in the Nature paper. This hinted at the possibility of illegal production at additional places. With an aim to further strengthen its compliance measures, China invited international experts to the proposed seminar that it will host next year to exchange information on capacity building for strict compliance. The Chinese delegation also keenly supported the decision for further study and scrutiny.

The meeting in Quito turned out to be the exemplary international show of what is expected from the collective wisdom of nations when faced with the unexpected emergence of an aberration that poses a threat to the acclaimed success of the multilateral environmental treaty.

Rajendra Shende is Chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre and former Director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Climate ChangeGlobal WarmingMontreal Protocol