Group identifies sources of rogue ozone-depleting pollution in China

A couple months ago, an atmospheric study revealed that someone had started producing an ozone-depleting pollutant that had been banned under an international agreement to protect the ozone layer. The new source was preventing the chemical from dissipating on schedule. Although the researchers were careful about what they could conclude from regional measurements, they found that eastern Asia was likely the source.

Now, a UK-based NGO called the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says that it has uncovered a number of Chinese companies that are responsible. If you’re expecting an elaborate infiltration and undercover sting… adjust your expectations. The investigation seems to have been shockingly easy, with the culprits’ representatives strangely amenable to detailing their illegal operations.

Mystery solved through Google

The EIA started with a simple Internet search, which turned up a few companies that were apparently advertising sales of the banned chemical, known as CFC-11. Like other CFCs, 11 can be used as a refrigerant or a propellant in aerosol spray cans. But it was also widely use to “inflate” foam insulation, and that seems to be the market where at least some of its illicit use has continued.

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It seems someone is producing a banned ozone-depleting chemical again

The Montreal Protocol—a 1987 international agreement to end production of ozone-destroying chemicals like freon—seems miraculous compared to the long struggle to achieve meaningful action on climate change. Even more astonishing is that the agreement has worked. Those chemicals (known as CFCs) take a long time to flush out of the atmosphere, but monitoring has shown that the flushing is proceeding largely according to plan.

That keeps the hole in the ozone layer on track to shrink over the coming decades. However, a new study shows that someone has been cheating in the last few years.

A group of researchers led by Stephen Montzka of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been tracking the progress of CFCs and noticed something off with CFC-11. This chemical has been used as a refrigerant, solvent, and propellant for aerosol spray cans, as well as in the production of styrofoam. As with the other CFCs, nations agreed to end production of CFC-11 entirely. While there may still be some older machines leaking CFC-11, these sources should gradually disappear over time, allowing the decline of its atmospheric concentration to accelerate.

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How bad would the ozone hole be if we did nothing?

The “hole” in the ozone layer is sometimes invoked by those who downplay environmental concerns as an example of “sky is falling” warnings that never came to pass. It’s an odd example. There’s a simple reason ozone problems didn’t come to pass: the world came together and agreed to phase out key ozone-depleting chemicals.

It’s a major success story, and one that should be remembered. As we consider the cost of dealing with ongoing environmental problems, it’s worth considering: how much better off are we for the action we did take to preserve the ozone layer? Some scientists have now tackled this question.

Ozone gas in the stratosphere is enormously important for life on Earth. Ozone absorbs ultraviolet radiation emitted by the Sun, greatly reducing the amount that reaches the surface. It’s sunscreen for the planet, as UV causes skin cancer and sunburns. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was discovered that compounds called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly used as refrigerants and in aerosol sprays, were breaking down stratospheric ozone.

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