Rise in Ozone-Destroying Chemical Despite Ban Puzzles Scientists

The ozone layer in the stratosphere 10-to-40 kilometres above Earth's surface protects life on the planet from deadly ultraviolet radiation

Paul Young, at Lancaster University, UK, said: "The Montreal Protocol has been rightly hailed as our most successful worldwide environmental treaty, so the suggestion that there are possibly continued, unreported emissions of CFCs is certainly troubling and needs further investigation". "Further work is needed to figure out exactly why emissions of CFC-11 are increasing and if something can be done about it soon".

"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.

CFC-11 still contributes about a quarter of all chlorine - the chemical that triggers the breakdown of ozone - reaching the stratosphere. Global production of CFC-11, which has been used as a refrigerant and in insulating foams, has been banned since 2010 under the Montreal Protocol.

Precise measurements of global atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11 made by NOAA and CIRES scientists at 12 remote sites around the globe show that CFC-11 concentrations declined at an accelerating rate prior to 2002 as expected. However, that decrease is significantly slower than it would be without the new CFC emissions. Then, surprisingly, the rate of decline hardly changed over the decade that followed. After considering a number of possible causes, Montzka and his colleagues concluded that CFC emissions must have increased after 2012.

Measurements from Hawaii indicate the sources of the increasing emissions are likely in eastern Asia.

Either someone's making the banned compound or it's sloppy byproducts that haven't been reported as required, Montzka said.

However, it took many decades for scientists to discover that when CFCs break down in the atmosphere, they release chlorine atoms that are able to rapidly destroy ozone molecules.

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"We show that the rate of decline of atmospheric CFC-11 was constant from 2002 to 2012, and then slowed by about 50 percent after 2012", an worldwide team of scientists concluded in a study.

Unreported production of CFC-11 outside certain specific carve-out purposes in the treaty would be a "violation of worldwide law", Weller confirmed, though he said that the protocol is "non-punitive" and the remedy would probably involve a negotiation with the offending party or country. CFC-11 concentrations have declined by 15 percent from peak levels measured in 1993 as a result.

The paper's findings are "environmentally and politically quite serious", Robert Watson, a former NASA scientist who organized bracing flights high into the Antarctic stratosphere to study ozone depletion in the 1980s, said in an emailed statement.

Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said: "If these emissions continue unabated, they have the potential to slow down the recovery of the ozone layer".

"This is the first time that emissions of one of the three most abundant, long-lived CFCs have increased for a sustained period since production controls took effect in the late 1980s", they note.

"If the increased emissions were to go away [soon], it's influence on the recovery date for the ozone layer would be minor", he said.

The Montreal Protocol, signed by more than 200 countries and generally regarded as having a good record of compliance, is created to protect the Earth's ozone layer.

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