The Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) found widespread use of Chlorofluorocarbons in China.
The environmental pressure group has claimed that Chinese factories are illegally using Ozone depleting CFCs which have recently seen a spike in emissions across East Asia.
Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, were discovered in 1928 by Thomas Midgley, an American engineer looking for a non-toxic refrigerant. After being used originally as a replacement for things such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide in refrigerators, CFCs were discovered to be useful as a propellant in aerosol cans.
CFC-11, is a potent destroyer of the ozone. The stratospheric ozone layer filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation, which is associated with an increased prevalence of skin cancer and cataracts, reduced agricultural productivity, and disruption of marine ecosystems.The internationally binding 1987 Montreal Protocol banned the use of CFC-11. It was the first treaty to achieve universal ratification by all countries in the world. The production of CFCs officially ended in developing countries in 2010.
In May, atmospheric scientists revealed the rise in CFCs and narrowed down the source close to East Asia. PU foams are used mainly as insulation in buildings, either sprayed into cavities or applied as solid panels, and are in high demand due to China’s construction boom. CFC-11 is easy to produce and $150 (£113) a tonne cheaper than the ozone-friendly alternative. The penalty in China for its use is a fine. However, the profit margins and demand is quite high for the product as opposed to very low risks.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, a NGO, has identified the widespread use of CFC-11 in Chinese factories that make insulating foams. The EIA’s investigators conducted a sting operation by identifying factories that sold the chemicals required for foam making.
“We were dumbfounded when out of 21 companies, 18 of them across China confirmed use of CFC-11, while acknowledging the illegality and being very blase about its use,” said Avipsa Mahapatra at the EIA.
Steve Montzka at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado, whose team revealed the increase in CFC levels, said “We didn’t know what on Earth someone would be using CFC-11 for – well, here’s one answer and that’s a surprise.” New atmospheric measurements in east Asia should narrow down the total amount of CFC-11 being leaked and any hotspot locations in the next nine months, he added.
The EIA’s findings are supported by official Chinese government documents, with a 2016 report from environmental officials in Shandong province, a key region for foam production, stating: “There is still a large volume of illegally produced CFC-11 being used in the foam industry” and that its production is “highly concealed”. Other documents from Shandong showed one factory alone to have been producing 1,100 tonnes of CFC-11 in a year.
A representative of one company, Aoyang Chemical Co, in Dacheng, Hebei province, told the EIA that 99% of its foams used CFC-11, bought from factories in Inner Mongolia. Another, from the nearby Wan Fu Chemical Co, said it was easy to avoid inspections: “When the municipal environmental bureau runs a check, our local officers would call me and tell me to shut down my factory. Our workers just gather and hide together.”
The EIA report acknowledges significant uncertainties in its calculation. But they believe that they have been conservative in estimating 10,000-12,000 tonnes a year of CFC-11 leaking into the atmosphere from foam-making in China from 2012-17.
China is a major producer of the rigid PU foams. If the illegal use of CFC-11 persists in the 3,500 small and medium- sized companies that make up the sector, it would delay the recovery of the ozone hole by a decade.
A Montreal Protocol (MP) working group is meeting in Vienna on 11 July and will consider the next steps.“This week will be a critical moment for dialogue, resolve and action to ensure any illegal activities are fully investigated and urgently halted,” said Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, which hosts the MP.
The scientific study that revealed the surge in CFC levels estimated emissions between 8,000 and 18,000 tonnes over the same period.
A new study looked at ozone data collected between 2005 and 2016 by the Microwave Limb Sounder (MLS) instrument aboard the Aura satellite. The authors of this study say their research is the first to directly show that ozone depletion is decreasing as a direct result of a decrease in the presence of chlorine from CFCs.
Our assessment is that the Montreal Protocol working committee must ensure the use of CFC-11 in Chinese factories are stopped immediately.The Chinese government should have thorough checks and balances in place to ensure that the use of CFC-11 is curbed. We believe that the Chinese government should incentivize the use of eco-friendly alternatives to the CFC-11.