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An Ozone Gas Mystery

The most important and successful atmospheric-protection treaty in the history of humankind may be facing a double threat from cheating and – ironically – climate-change politics.

Under the Montreal Protocol, which was signed in 1987 and took effect in 1989, global leaders agreed to quickly phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were depleting the vital layer of ozone in the earth’s atmosphere, most prominently in higher latitudes. A seasonal Antarctic “ozone hole” had already been thoroughly documented, demonstrating a near-absence of ozone high above the southernmost continent every winter and peaking in the early spring.

That hole was already expanding at times to cover the southern parts of South America and other inhabited land masses. Without ozone to absorb the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, people and especially livestock and wildlife ran a much higher risk of cataracts, skin cancer and other illnesses. And although the effects were seen earliest and most markedly near the South Pole, the circulation of high-altitude weather systems meant that ozone was ultimately reduced all around the globe. A corresponding but less severe ozone depletion was noted in the Northern Hemisphere as well. Doubts and objections were quickly resolved, and ozone depletion was addressed as a global threat.

The Montreal Protocol banned the production and use of CFCs in all industrialized countries by 1996, and in developing nations soon thereafter. Despite initial objections, scientists and engineers quickly came up with substitutes for CFCs, which were widely used in air conditioning and other refrigeration systems, as well as some manufacturing. Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) were an interim measure; they likewise deplete the ozone layer, but at a lower rate than CFCs. They are currently being phased out, with nearly all use in developed countries due to end by 2020.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) looked like a long-term solution. Now widely used as a CFC replacement, they contain no chlorine atoms, and it is the release of chlorine in the upper atmosphere that leads to the depletion of ozone. As a bonus, although HFCs are considered “greenhouse gases” that can contribute to global warming, their global warming potential is ranked below that of the CFCs they replaced. It sounds like a win-win.

At present every recognized sovereign nation on earth has signed on to the Montreal Protocol – a first for humanity. CFC levels have been measurably declining, although it will take decades to erase existing accumulations, since the typical lifespan of the chemicals once released is about 50 years. The ozone hole has been shrinking, in part due to lower concentrations and, possibly, in part due to warmer conditions in the polar upper atmosphere. As of 2017, the ozone hole is approximately the same size that it was in 1988, according to NASA measurements. Global warming could have an upside.

But scientists have now made the alarming discovery that someone is cheating on the Montreal Protocol. A banned compound, CFC-11, is showing up at levels that could only occur if a lot of pre-ban CFC is suddenly being released, if someone is making it illegally, or if someone is failing to capture, report and remove it when it occurs as a byproduct of other chemical manufacturing. According to press reports, a network of monitoring stations has led researchers to believe the emissions are coming from the region of China, Mongolia and the Korean peninsula.

This is a good time to recall the adage that when you hear hoofbeats, you should expect to see a horse rather than a zebra. North Korea is the sort of country that is prone to cheat on such matters, but it probably lacks both the capacity and the motive to produce illicit CFCs. The North Korean regime isn’t going to fund a nuclear weapons program by selling air conditioners amid international sanctions. South Korea’s manufacturing base is developed and generally compliant. Mongolia is a small and largely agrarian nation with a tiny population.

China, on the other hand, has the world’s largest population, a huge and poorly regulated manufacturing sector, endemic public corruption, a politicized judiciary and leadership that puts a high premium on economic growth. It would be the first place anyone would look for this sort of cheating, if anyone were ever inclined and in a position to look at all.

If we can’t maintain reliable compliance with a well-established, universally accepted international accord to protect most life on earth from a clear and present danger, what are the prospects for long-term compliance with subsequent deals intended to address the more amorphous, subjective, controversial and long-term effects of human-induced climate change?

I’d say those prospects are not good. They are not improved by the hijacking of the Montreal Protocol itself in the service of a climate-change agenda. But this is exactly what has happened.

Last year Sweden became the 20th nation (of 197, plus a few potentates and principalities, that have signed onto the Montreal Protocol) to ratify the Kigali Amendment, which was proposed in 2016, to phase out HFCs – the long-term substitute for CFCs that does not harm the ozone layer. Sweden’s ratification is enough to make the amendment legally binding on all nations. This means big HFC producing and consuming nations like the United States, China and India are obliged to end their use of HFCs in the coming decades. The United States is supposed to eliminate production and importation by 2036; China has until 2045 and India until 2047.

Why? Because, although not as powerful a global warming contributor as the chemicals they replaced, HFCs are themselves considered a greenhouse gas. Their contribution to climate change is negligible right now, but climate models that assume increasing concentrations of HFCs in the future project a larger impact. Hence, a group of nations constituting barely 10 percent of the Montreal Protocol’s signatories agreed to require the entire world to stop using HFCs. And under the Protocol’s terms, unless we withdraw, we are bound to oblige.

It is not hard to see how this could become a political issue, not just in the United States but in other nations that may feel both their welfare and their sovereignty is infringed by this repurposing of the Montreal pact. But there’s more.

If we eliminate HFCs, we will need to find yet another replacement for refrigeration and other uses. That might seem like no big deal, given the ease with which CFCs were phased out (prior to the latest apparent violation), but that may not be the case. There is a finite number of chemicals that have the properties needed to function as coolants, and these alternatives still come with other trade-offs. Some are too toxic for manufacturers or service technicians to safely handle. Some are too chemically unstable. Some are explosive, and most of the remaining candidates – a group of researchers identified 27 out of a starting field of more than 60 million chemical structures – are flammable to some degree.

Today, if a car is involved in a collision, the fire danger comes from leaking fuel, not leaking refrigerant. This could change. With alternate coolants, a simple leak from a vehicle’s air conditioner could start a life-threatening fire. When people start dying in these sorts of accidents, it will be fair to say that global warming is actually killing people – just not in the way alarmists predict it will.

The Montreal Protocol is an achievement worth fighting for. It won’t be easy to rescue it. Tracking down the source of the apparent CFC violation and getting whatever authorities are responsible to take appropriate action will probably require some detective work, or even espionage. Beyond that, either chemical science and engineering will have to pull another rabbit out of a hat to replace HFCs, or diplomats will need to address the cost-benefit trade-offs of using Montreal as a backdoor method of imposing limits that Americans and other self-governing people have declined to address through climate accords that are directly on point.

If neither of these things happen, some future populist leader is going to come to office after campaigning against the Montreal Protocol. In that case, we are all going to need some strong sunscreen and dark glasses.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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