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Last Updated: Monday, 17 September 2007, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Unfinished business of ozone protection
Joe Farman
VIEWPOINT
Joe Farman

There is a popular belief that the ozone layer has been "saved". Not so, says Joe Farman, one of the scientists who discovered the Antarctic ozone "hole" - even as the Montreal Protocol celebrates its 20th birthday, much remains to be done.

'Ozone friendly' hair product. Image: BBC
"Ozone-friendly" products helped reduce the chemical depletion
It was announced, on 16 September 1987 in Montreal, that a United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) working group had reached an agreement.

Readers of Lewis Carroll may recall the words of an old song that came into Alice's head in Through the Looking Glass: "Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed - to have a battle".

What was agreed in Montreal 20 years ago? Essentially, governments would be invited to ratify a protocol to control substances that were depleting the ozone layer.

For chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of chemicals widely used by industry, most notably in aerosols and refrigerators, consumption was to be held at 1986 levels from July 1989, and reduced in steps to 50% of 1986 levels by 1999.

For halons - bromine-containing substances favoured for fire-fighting - consumption would be frozen at 1986 levels in 1992.

International protocols are seen by some as one more set of rules from which to gain advantage
Under such measures, the accumulation of chlorine and bromine in the atmosphere would not be stopped, but merely slowed down.

The most important article in the protocol committed member governments to a review every four years. Without this article, the outlook would have been very bleak!

Mapping the hole

It seemed a very poor return for negotiations that had started in 1977, and was variously termed a success, a compromise, a muddle, and a failure - all with some justification.

Perhaps the working group were overtaken by events; they were trying to complete a protocol which was already too weak given the flood of information which scientists were amassing about the severity of the problem.

Launching a balloon. Image: David Hay Jones / Science Photo Library
The 1970s and 80s saw seminal scientific papers on ozone
The mid-70s saw the publication of several seminal scientific papers identifying the possibility of ozone-destroying chain reactions in the stratosphere.

Ozone depletion in early spring over Antarctica had been reported in the journal Nature in May 1985, much more severe than any prediction, and confirmed by Nasa in October 1985.

In reporting the Nasa results, the Washington Post newspaper gave the world the expressive term "ozone hole".

In 1986, the US National Ozone Expedition (Noze) to McMurdo Station in Antarctica had produced much evidence to support the view that the depletion was driven by chlorine chemistry.

The same year, the giant chemicals company Du Pont, reminded of a promise made in 1975, wrote to its CFC customers in September 1986 declaring that it now accepted the need for some controls.

Against this background, the timing of the announcement of the protocol, and the weakness of the measures, make sense only as a pre-emptive move astutely designed to preserve some credibility for the negotiators, and to give industry time for orderly reorganisation.

World tour

The protocol was ratified and came into force on 1 January 1989 in line with the timetable.

More emphasis should have been placed on prudent long-term goals
Meanwhile sales of CFCs and halons had reached record levels!

The review procedure was set in motion at once. By then, a consensus had been reached on the main scientific issues, NGOs had fought vigorous campaigns for public awareness, and industry was responding to the problem much faster than had initially seemed possible.

Various sets of amendments, all named after the cities where they were negotiated - London, Copenhagen, Vienna, and so on - were brought in.

Most notably, in 1999, $232m were committed to fund the complete closure of CFC production in China and India within a decade.

The main concern in all these negotiations was to replace CFCs quickly with new chemicals, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) being the options preferred by industry.

Some 75% of global CFC production was in the hands of 13 groups of companies, who were quite content to close down old CFC plant if the protocol would allow reasonable time for the industry to profit from investment in HCFC and HFC production.

Supercomputer
Some supercomputers still use ozone-depleting substances
The negotiators readily accepted this; these transitional substances were made subject to guidelines rather than controls, and their future was originally left open-ended, as consensus could not be reached on a phase-out date.

In my view this approach was deeply flawed. Technical surveys had already shown that large quantities of CFCs and halons had been released unnecessarily by poor working practices. The quantities of replacements needed were much less than current consumption.

More emphasis should have been placed on prudent long-term goals, with active encouragement of the development of halocarbon-free and energy-efficient technologies, to protect the ozone layer, slow down the forcing of climate change and reduce the cost of technologies such as refrigeration in developing countries.

Easy cash?

There is still some unfinished business. The amount of halon 1301 (used in large stationary fire protection systems for such things as supercomputers and art collections) in the atmosphere is still rising, and is likely to continue to do so for at least 10 years, despite the fact that production in developed countries ceased in 1994.

There is some production in developing countries, due to cease in 2010; but the main source is now through leaks from existing installations, and during recycling. It is surely time to consider collecting the existing stockpile, and destroying it.

It is also time to reconsider the controls for HCFCs.

Politicians have often stated that the experience gained with the Montreal Protocol would ease the way for slowing down climate change through the Kyoto Protocol.

In fact serious problems are now arising between the Protocols. Under Montreal, developing countries need not control consumption of HCFC22 (used mainly for air-conditioning equipment) until 2016, and may maintain the 2015 consumption level until complete phase-out by 2040.

The ozone hole. Image: Nasa / AP
It may take half a century for the ozone layer to repair itself
A by-product of HCFC22 manufacture is HFC23, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 11,700 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

In developing countries, this used to be allowed to escape into the atmosphere. Now, any which is trapped and burnt can be counted as a credit for carbon trading under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2005, the destruction of HFC23 accounted for 64% of the value of all CDM projects, and 51% in 2006. It is reported that an Indian chemicals firm (SRF) has so far sold credits worth $96m in the 2006-7 financial year, its second largest revenue stream.

This example acts as a reminder that international protocols are seen by some as one more set of rules from which to gain advantage.

There is currently much debate on whether carbon trading based so heavily on burning HFC23 constitutes sustainable development.

The moral seems to be there should never be open-ended agreements on future emissions.

Frequent reviews rescued the Montreal Protocol from deficiencies in the original draft, and another comprehensive re-examination is clearly needed.

Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin, then of the British Antarctic Survey, reported severe ozone depletion over Antarctica - the "ozone hole" - in May 1985. Dr Farman is now based at the European Ozone Research Co-ordinating Unit

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website


Are you concerned about ozone depletion? Is Joe Farman right to suggest that the problem has not been solved? Do you think governments have been looking for financial advantages from the Montreal Protocol, or dragging their heels?

Follow the money. Why do so many countries support the Kyoto Protocol? Because money will be flowing from the US/UK to them and they don't have to pay it back. Sustainable development or sustainable income? Robin Hood and his merry men would be proud.
Mike Flaugher, Indiana, USA

Well, Joe Farman is absolutely correct.We all are directly or indirectly linked to this problem and its our responsibility to solve this problem.We still use air conditioners for recreation.We still carry halogen-based chemicals in our laboratories.We use chlorine based chemicals in our gardens,homes.fields,etc.If we need to do something it has to be done at home.Small change in attitude can solve this problem.
sandeep thakur, chandigarh,india

this talk of the 'cfc panic' and the 'ozone scare' is really brilliant, considering the ozone hasn't actually killed us yet. But this is the sort of thing you just can't mess around with, even if you're not 100 % sure what will happen - when we're talking about potential woldwide emvironmental disaster - doing what it takes to ensure its not going to kill us is the smart move - not bitching about the inconvenience.
Brendan Heard, dublin

As the world fast approaches the environmental bottleneck of rising population/pollution and resource depletion, wars and infrastructure collapse will cause an increased release of all kinds of gasses as international control weakens....from initial disbelief...a sense of inevitability is settling over the world...but history shows that those that do not care will, in the end, be made to care.
robert menage, aberdeen

Unfortunately the United States, through it's greed to become the best in all facets of business, economics, technology, world power, etc., it's lost humanity, dignity and leadership. It's all about GREED. I'm afraid that technology won't let us go backwards, but along with technological advances comes responsibility. The USA has lost sight of its humanity in the world. For those at home and the world at large. Individual citizens have a losing battle trying to right the wrongs.
Christine Mannella, Elgin, Illinois U.S.A.

If global warming killed 5 million people next year there would be a worldwide uproar. But poverty will kill a bare minimum of 5 million people, and yet it's not discussed - probably because scientists have nothing to say about it.
Hugh Eldred-Grigg, Wellington, New Zealand

Congratulations to Joe Farman for an excellent article on a much neglected aspect of the global warming problem - the contribution of Potent Industrial Greenhouse Gases. These are the easiest and cheapest forms of greenhouse gas emissions abatement available to us, and it is important that Governments meeting in Montreal this week take firm action to accelerate the phase out of HCFCs and replenish the multilateral fund of the Montreal Protocol to drive the uptake of genuinely sustainable refrigerants. The Problem is not that Governments are looking for financial advantages, but that bureaucrats and politicians worldwide have been captured by a very sophisticated and well resourced campaign by the fluorochemical industry who have succeeded in pushing their HCFC and HFC products and have actively frustrated the development of competing natural refrigerant choices.
Brent Hoare, Katoomba, NSW, Australia

A great number of people and critical national assets were put at increased risk when we prematurely stopped production of 1301 prior to developing a equally effective substitute. The ozone hole continues to expand even with all the production cuts. This is clearly an example of a scientific "consensus" being wrong in terms of its prediction of the effect of the production bans. Let us hope the "consensus" on global warming is not as flawed.
Ray Vaselich, Lorton/Virginia/USA

The CFC panic is a classic case of how NOT to respond to an envirnomental issue. The premature ban in the USA cost car owners billions in changing over old systems that would have gone off the road in a few more years anyway, while the Chinese were cranking out tons of new CFC (much of which came in on the black market). The newest folly is endangering the lives of millions of asthmatic children to remove the ounces of CFC in brochodilator inhalers while the third world is free to use tons in all sorts of air conditioners!
Bill Brickenstein, Spring City USA

Thank you for your report. In the United States we need more media available to the public. I have been an infant teacher and have been forced to spray, in unventilated rooms, the room, toys, and furnishings with chlorine bleach. I have not heard of any warnings for chlorine except in the environmental science class for global warming and your report. We need scientific data for cleaning alternatives equivilent to the controls set by the U.S. government for germ control. Thank you.
Sheryl Skoglund, USA

At the end of the day I'm pretty sure deep inside that we all know that actually we are wholly insignificant and actually all our actions are entirely futile. The only reason green issues now pull any kind of popular attention are because every Tom, Dick and Harry is someway trying to profiteer. Our governments do it to exploit taxes, charities do it to help other more vital causes, companies to it to increase profits. The horrible truth is we have walked down a path with no turn offs. We are indeed destined for a grizzily end, in an over polluted, commodity stripped world.
Alex Gill, Sussex

Farman and his ilk have been given 20 years to sort out the problem with very significant governmental intervention. Oddly, though, in spite of everything they've done the old ozone hole just rocks along pretty much like it has since they "discovered" it in the 1970's. I hate to say it, but my feeling is that Farman and his buddies' activism against CFC's has a lot more to do with a rather profound loathing of industrial civilisation than it does about science. These days we see the same sort of witch hunt going on, but since the ozone hole isn't a good excuse any more they're pumping "global warming" instead.
Forrest Higgs, Pacific Grove, CA

There is only a single solution to this problem, and no country in the world, is actually making any effort whatsoever, to put the solution into place, nor will they. Only substantial reductions in world populations will stop the destruction of the planet, which requires substantial economic retrenchment, and changes in life style, which simply will not happen.
Rick McDaniel, Lewisville, TX USA

Joe Farman is right in his suggestion that the problem has not been solved and not much is been done about it most especially in Africa.
Augustine O. Etunwaoke, Ibadan, Oyo - State, Nigeria.

'Nick' is completely wrong in saying 'there's no political mileage to be had in natural phenomena' (sic). President Bush has staked his career on claiming that climate change is natural. And I'm quite sure that Dr Farman knows more about the role of solar radiation than 'Nick' does.
Mr Henderson, London, UK

Use of methyl-bromide is soaring, thanks to a loophole in the Montreal protocol. Profligate use of methyl-bromide is undoing the gains achived from the phasing out of CFCs/HFCs.
Adrian, Rotterdam

HEADLINE - don't get out of bed today, because if the real world doesn't end to today, then the banks will collapse, or the sky will fall in, or we'll find something else to threaten you with - god I wish the 80's were still here, if the IRA didn't get you, and you didn't see a mushroom cloud - everything was just fine.
Malc, Tamworth

I am sure that restraints on the production and use of CFCs and HFCs can only be good for the environment, but I am somewhat surprised that this article fails to mention anything about the significant impact on our ozone layer caused by solar storms. I do wish scientists could be slightly less obsessed by "mankind's vandalism" and occasionally accept that nature itself can often play a significant role in these matters. Mind you, there's no political mileage to be had in natural phenomena.
Nick, London

All our governments are, in the greater picture, very short term affairs - 10 years or so considered a good, long run. Which means all our government's goals are also short term affairs - how do we keep the voters happy with the minimum of effort? Often, they elect to simply lie, or spin and embroider the truth as they'd probably prefer to see it. Leaving out the nastier facts of life and telling us only the bits that keep us stupid, afraid, and greedy enough to keep voting. Don't kid yourselves; our governments do not care about our environment. And so long as the voting public continue to allow themselves to live in comfortable ignorance of the truths that's never going to change.
Rachel, Brighton

I do not think that the problem has been hit hard enough and the public are not being told the whole truth about the severity of the devistation that we are causeing in the world. Programmes should be broadcasted between 1800-2000 on BBC 1 and ITV 1. This will target most of the public and all ages. I also think that big corporations and business are profiting and also not doing enough because they only think of money. However, if they are not fined etc then distaster will strike and what good will their money be to them then!! Hit hard and tell it how it really is, and damn who it annoyes.
Mrs S Williams, Gosport, Hampshire, England

While I'm concerned about ozone depletion, Joe Farman does his cause no good by presenting half-remembered information or not checking his data. It's "Tweedledum and Tweedledee *resolved* to have a battle". Seriously, how much of the "leakage in recycling" is from the refrigerator mountains that UK local authorities built up while waiting for disposal capacity to become available? Unless that capacity is now available, how are we going to collect the stockpile?
Nick Semmens, Basinggrad, UK



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