Mysterious rise in emissions of ozone-damaging chemical

Ismael LynchMay 17, 2018

"It is therefore imperative that this finding be discussed at the next Ministerial meeting of Governments given recovery of the ozone layer is dependent on all countries complying with the Montreal Protocol (and its adjustments and amendments) with emissions globally dropping to zero".

The standard reference for CFC concentrations, the United Nations Environment Program's Handbook for the Montreal Protocol, reported in its 2012 edition that production of CFC-11 was very close to zero. The startling resurgence of the chemical, reported in Nature, will likely spark an worldwide investigation to track down the mysterious source.

CFC-11, which is one of the banned chemicals, is the second most abundant ozone-depleting gas, commonly used in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, and old styrofoam. Use of the chemical was banned in 2010 via the Montreal Protocol, an worldwide agreement made to protect the environment.

Zaelke said he was surprised by the findings, not just because the chemical has always been banned, but also because alternatives already exist, making it hard to imagine what the market for CFC-11 today would be.

Measurements at remote sites, including the U.S. government-run Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, of the chemical known as CFC-11, point to East Asia as the source or renewed production.

The issue involves a gas called CFC-11, a chlorofluorocarbon that contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. In fact, CFC-11 emissions between 2014 and 2016 were found to be 25 percent higher than the average CFC-11 emissions from 2002 to 2012. It is only destroyed in the stratosphere, some 9 to 18 miles above the planet's surface, where the resulting chlorine molecules engage in a string of ozone-destroying chemical reactions.

Despite the increase in CFC-11 emissions, its concentration in the atmosphere continues to decrease, but only about half as fast as the decline observed a few years ago, and at a substantially slower rate than expected.

"It is not clear why any country would want to start to produce, and inadvertently release, CFC-11, when cost effective substitutes have been available for a long while", Watson continued.

To put that in perspective, production of CFC-11, marketed under the trade name Freon, peaked at about 430,000 tons per year in the 1980s.

However, if no action is taken on the new source of emissions, it could be highly significant.

It could also make a contribution to rising global temperatures. Under the treaty's requirements, nations have reported less than 500 tons of new CFC-11 production per year since 2010.

If the source of these new emissions can be identified and controlled soon, the damage to the ozone layer should be minor, Montzka said. "They should tell the industries that's not going to work". This insults everybody who's worked on this for the last 30 years. But if the problem is allowed to persist, it could jeopardize ozone layer recovery and worsen climate change. "A delay in ozone recovery [.] is anticipated, with an overall importance depending on the trajectory of CFC-11 emissions and concentrations in the future".

At its most depleted, around the turn of the 21st century, the ozone layer had declined by about five percent.

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