The Mystery of CFC Emissions

Thirty-one years ago, the world was facing an environmental crisis. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had over the previous century become widely used in refrigeration, insulation, and firefighting. However, the emissions of CFCs into the atmosphere was destroying the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the planet from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

In 1987, 46 nations agreed to the Montreal Protocol, successfully establishing a timeline that phased out the production of CFCs by 2010 and helped restore the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol was known as one of the most successful international environmental treaties. Under the Montreal Protocol, countries were supposed to phase out the production of ozone-depleting substances by the year 2010. However, according to research done by Nature, there was a mysterious increase in the levels of CFC in the atmosphere that leads back to China. At least 18 Chinese foam producing industries were responsible for the production of these ozone-depleting substances. The increase in CFC emissions has set back the goals of the Montreal Protocol by a decade and marks a huge upset in the progression of international cooperation in alleviating environmental problems.

The reason why China continued to produce CFCs is a tricky one. There are problems associated with the cost of environmentally-friendly substitutes to CFCs that the foam manufacturing industry could use. Regardless of the timeline set to aid countries that don’t find it economically viable to phase out the production of this substance immediately, certain industries still sought after them as the much cheaper alternative much past the planned date to phase them out. These financial obstacles raise concerns as to whether or not members of the international community are doing enough to aid each other in meeting their goals and if future international agreements need to focus more on economic capability.

Balancing China’s economy and environmental protection has always been a difficult matter. Whenever economic growth and environmental protection conflict, the former usually takes top priority. The regulation and enforcement of environmental laws take up time and money and can deplete valuable economic resources. For example, when it came to the regulation of greenhouse gases, many local officials were heavily involved with these local industries and tried to find ways to limit enforcement so as to limit the impact it has on production.

Many of these foam producing industries were also surprisingly open about their illegal use of CFCs. Regardless of their awareness of the law, they continued to use it because it’s a much cheaper alternative. These industries are also rarely inspected, so the level of risk when it came to using them was low. Some of them also expressed that they simply weren’t aware of the availability of substitutes, showing the need for increased efforts the Chinese government must take toward regulation and education.

The increase of CFC emissions by China raises many concerns among the global community. The first is the halt in the progression towards the anticipated goal of restoring the ozone layer. The slower it takes for the ozone layer to heal, the more harm it can cause for skin cancer, marine biodiversity, and agricultural production.

Second, the cooperation of nations in international environmental agreements is essential in combating the effects of climate change and environmental damage. Environmental harms transcend boundaries and the actions of one nation can impact people across the globe. China’s inability to uphold the conditions of the Montreal Protocol can have detrimental impacts on people all over the world and for the future of international environmental treaties. Many countries are already hesitant to sign onto world agreements when it costs them. Finding out that one of the signatories turned their backs on the gold-standard agreement can make it hard for other countries to want to comply with other international agreements.

However, since the discovery of CFC emissions, China’s government has stepped up to ensure that industries are not violating regulations. The Chinese government has acted swiftly in response to illegal CFC emissions due to the increasing pressure from the domestic and international community that came with this news. Within days of the report, they announced the creation of a task force that deals with violators and tracks down the source of these illegal emissions. While regulation should’ve occurred much earlier, the recognition of the problem and the steps taken to solve it are currently occurring. All eyes are currently on China as they work to resolve a major problem in the treaty that was thought to have been the most successful international environmental agreement.

In November, a meeting of the signatories to the Montreal Protocol will be held in Ecuador where countries will discuss this increase in emissions. From there, we can hope that the obstacles in the way of restoring the ozone layer can be discussed and abolished.

Featured Image Source: NASA