Chinese Action on Montreal Protocol Violators

CC BY 2.0. NASA's Earth Observatory

After evidence that China violated the treaty intended to protect the earth's ozone layer, the country has leapt into action.

The Montreal Protocol gives hope to anyone thinking humans can pull together to reverse the causes of global warming before it is too late. This treaty intended to protect the earth's stratospheric ozone layer is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful international conventions for the control of chemical pollution, and was on track to close the "ozone hole" and return the health of the earth's ozone layer to pre-1980 levels between 2050 and 2070.

But earlier this year, news broke that someone is cheating. Scientists put on their Sherlock Holmes' caps and tracked the offenders down. The finger of blame pointed squarely at China.

History of the Montreal Protocol

It started with scientists raising the alarm in the 1970's that the ozone layer in the earth's upper atmosphere was being eaten away by certain chemical pollutants, especially the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerators and as propellants for aerosol spray cans. The ozone layer plays an important role in protecting life on earth, by absorbing ultraviolet radiation (UV-B) which can cause skin cancers, damage crops and harm marine phytoplankton.

These reports were followed by the usual cycle of claims by industry that the science was not sufficiently clear to stop the use of the suspected pollutants. Fortunately, the science won out and in 1985, the United Nations agreed upon the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and two years later adopted the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer as the mechanism for action. These two treaties were subsequently ratified by every single member state of the United Nations, the first treaties to be universally ratified in the organization's history.

China signed on to the Montreal Protocol in 1991, and passed national laws which were acclaimed for achieving key deadlines for the phase-out of ozone depleting chemicals including CFC-11 in 2010.

Chinese cheaters come to light

A report in Nature (pdf) earlier this year revealed a sudden and unexpected increase in CFC-11, threatening the recovery of Earth's ozone layer. After a steady and continuous decrease in the quantities of the slowly degraded trichlorofluoromethane CFC-11 in the atmosphere between 2002 and 2012, the rate of decline slowed down. The only possible explanation: somehow a chemical that was supposedly no longer produced anywhere in the world was once again being released into the air.

The UK-based non-governmental group the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) tracked the releases down to the rigid polyurethane (PU) foam producers in China, finding that companies were using the illegal blowing agent because it is cheaper, and suggesting that the cheating is widespread, common practice.

Publication of the results of this investigation in the UK newspaper The Guardian prompted the Chinese government to write an open letter emphasizing China's zero tolerance policy to such cheating and promising immediate action.

Chinese action on Montreal protocol violators

A zero tolerance policy is of little value without consistent and effective enforcement, so the fact that the production and use of CFC-11 has once again become commonplace in China can only be seen as a stain on the reputation of the nation and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment responsible for compliance with the laws against illicit commerce in the banned substances.

But the country has leapt into action, launching a national special action on ozone depleting substance (ODS) law enforcement. The spokeperson(s) of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment have published responses to questions (in Chinese) from journalists on their investigation and the intended consequences for violators.

The language reflects the seriousness with which the issue is being handled, promising to deal with violators resolutely. The Chinese environmental ministry typically uses a "five-step method" to enforce environmental protection laws, including establishing policies and requirements to meet intended environmental goals, assigning responsibilities for compliance, inspecting, interviewing and conducting "special inspections."

This case represents a unique challenge though: how to inspect when the companies that are violating the laws are unknown. So in addition to the usual five-step method, the Ministry promises trace down clues to the origin of the illegal substances.

Violators, once found, will be subject to strict penalties in accordance with the law and will be brought to criminal prosecution. If history is any indication, the individuals found responsible for causing national embarrassment will regret their decisions to put their own financial interests ahead of the health of the planet.

The moral of the story is also clear: continuous monitoring of the health of the earth's ecosystems remains essential to prevent backsliding. Cheap will always beat compliant when no one is watching, so all eyes are on China as the enforcement officials work to close the door on this ugly episode.