Someone, somewhere, is making a forbidden chemical that destroys the ozone layer, scientists suspect

    Abdulaziz Sobh

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    The emissions of a banned chemical that depletes the ozone layer are increasing, a group of scientists reported on Wednesday, suggesting that someone could be secretly manufacturing the pollutant in violation of an international agreement. CFC-11 emissions have increased by 25 percent since 2012, despite the fact that the chemical is part of a group of ozone pollutants that were phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. "I've been doing these measurements for more than 30 years, and this is the most amazing thing I've seen," said Stephen Montzka, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who led the work. "I was amazed, really." It is an anguishing result in the midst of what is widely seen as a global environmental success story, in which nations, alarmed by a growing "ozone hole", took collective action to phase out chlorofluorocarbons. The finding is likely to generate an international investigation into the mysterious source. Officially, the production of CFC-11 is assumed to be close to zero, at least, that is what the countries have been saying to the UN agency that monitors and enforces the Montreal Protocol. But with the emissions increasing, scientists suspect that someone is manufacturing the chemical in defiance of the ban. "Someone is cheating," said Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and an expert on the Montreal Protocol, in a commentary on the new research. "There is a small possibility that there is an involuntary release, but ... they make it clear that there is strong evidence that it is actually happening." Scientists do not know exactly who or where that person would be. A US observatory UU In Hawaii, he found that CFC-11 was mixed with other gases that were characteristic of a source from somewhere in East Asia, but scientists could not reduce the area further. Zaelke said he was surprised by the findings, not only because the chemical has been banned for a long time, but also because there are alternatives, which makes it difficult to imagine what the market would be for today's CFC-11. The research was directed by US researchers. UU With NOAA, with the help of scientists from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Their results were published in the journal Nature. There is a small possibility that there is a more innocent explanation for the increase in CFC-11 emissions, scientists say. They considered a variety of alternative explanations for growth, such as a change in atmospheric patterns that phase out CFC gases in the stratosphere, an increase in the rate of demolition of buildings containing old CFC-11 waste or accidental production. But they concluded that these sources could not explain the increase, which they calculated at around 13 billion grams per year in recent years. Rather, the evidence "strongly suggests" a new source of emissions, the scientists wrote. "These considerations suggest that the largest emissions of CFC-11 arise from the new production not reported to the Ozone Secretariat [of the United Nations Environment Program], which is inconsistent with the agreed elimination of CFC production in the Montreal Protocol for 2010, "the researchers wrote. CFC-11, used mainly for foams, can last up to 50 years in the atmosphere once it is released. It is destroyed only in the stratosphere, some nine or 18 miles above the surface of the planet, where the resulting chlorine molecules are involved in a chain of chemical reactions that destroy ozone. That loss of ozone, in turn, weakens our protection against ultraviolet radiation on the surface of the Earth. The chemical is also a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. The document's findings are "environmentally and politically quite serious," said Robert Watson, a former NASA scientist who organized booster flights in the Antarctic stratosphere to study ozone depletion in the 1980s, he said in a statement sent by email. "It's not clear why a country would want to start producing, and inadvertently launch, CFC-11, when profitable substitutes have been available for a long time," Watson continued. "Therefore, it is imperative that this finding is discussed at the next ministerial meeting of governments, given that the recovery of the ozone layer depends on all countries complying with the Montreal Protocol (and its adjustments and amendments) with emissions that fall to zero. " Watson suggested that aircraft flights might be necessary to better identify the source of the emissions. Keith Weller, the spokesman for the UN Environment Program, which administers the Montreal Protocol, said the findings would have to be verified by the scientific panel for the protocol and then presented to member countries of the treaty. "If these emissions continue unabated, they have the potential to slow down the recovery of the ozone layer," Weller said in a statement. "Therefore, it is essential that we make an inventory of this science, identify the causes of these emissions and take the necessary measures." The unreported production of CFC-11 outside certain specific purposes of exclusion in the treaty would be a "violation of international law," Weller confirmed, although he said the protocol is "non-punitive" and the remedy would likely involve negotiation with the party or offender country. But Zaelke said the finding could promote tougher action. "This treaty cannot afford not to follow its tradition and maintain its record of compliance," he said. "They're going to find the culprits," Zaelke said. "This insults everyone who has worked on this for the past 30 years, that's a difficult group of people." The ozone layer is slowly recovering and the substances that deplete the ozone layer continue to decline. But the apparent increase in CFC-11 emissions has lowered the rate of decline by about 22 percent, the scientists found. This, in turn, will delay the recovery of the ozone layer and, in the meantime, leave it more vulnerable to other threats. "Knowing how much time and effort and resources have gone into healing the ozone layer and seeing this is a surprise, frankly," said Montzka.