Barrels of raw material used to create foam insulation containing CFC-11 at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province.

Barrels of raw material used to create foam insulation containing CFC-11 at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province. Courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency

How an Illicit Chemical Is Jeopardizing Recovery of the Ozone Layer

An international treaty signed in 1987 officially halted production and use of chemicals that deplete the atmosphere’s critical ozone layer. But new research finds a troubling rise in emissions of a banned chemical that is being routinely used in factories in northeast China.

When the Montreal Protocol marked its 30th anniversary in 2017, it seemed like an unalloyed triumph for environmental common sense. By banding together to address a planetary emergency, the 197 signatory nations had officially ended production and use of chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, an essential shield against the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It was a “milestone for all people and our planet,” according to António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations. “The Earth’s Ozone Hole is Shrinking,” one celebratory headline announced. “Without the Ozone Treaty,” another advised, “You’d Get Sunburned in 5 Minutes.”

But an unexpected recent spike in emissions of CFCs (or chlorofluorocarbons), the major ozone-depleting chemicals, now suggests it’s far too soon to close the file on ozone depletion. A new study published this week in Nature pins down the source of 7,000 metric tons a year of new CFC-11 (trichlorofluoromethane) emissions to the provinces of Shandong and Hebei on the northeastern coast of China. That’s an area half the size of Texas, with a population of about 170 million people, including the city of Beijing. The bulk of these emissions are believed to come from small factories that are using CFC-11, in violation of the Montreal Protocol, to manufacture foam insulation used in refrigerators and buildings.

The new study accounts for roughly half the emissions reported last year in Nature, by some of the same authors. Based on data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the previous study reported new emissions of about 13,000 tons a year of CFC-11 from somewhere in eastern Asia starting in 2012.That was two years after the 2010 date for ending all CFC production under the terms of the Montreal Protocol. It was “the first time that emissions of one of the most abundant CFCs have increased for a sustained period since production controls took effect in the late 1980s,” according to that study.

The search for new threats to the ozone layer is being conducted by a patchy network of monitoring stations around the world.

Protecting the ozone layer has thus come to look increasingly like an endless search for new and unsuspected threats, as well as for old threats unexpectedly revived. It’s a search conducted primarily by a patchy network of monitoring stations managed in a multinational collaboration, on islands and mountaintop sites around the world. These stations measure trace concentrations of about 50 ozone-depleting chemicals and greenhouse gases in parts per trillion in the upper atmosphere. The protocol of sampling many times each day for decades on end is difficult and expensive, requiring a long-term commitment from the country where each observatory is located. Hence only 15 observatories now participate in the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE), leaving huge geographic gaps in coverage.

The new study is based on reports from monitoring stations in Gosan, South Korea and Hateruma, in southern Japan. Because of the gaps in the AGAGE network, however, it’s unlikely that scientists will ever be able to detect the source of the rest of the reported 13,000 tons of new emissions. And because the monitoring stations measure only emissions, not production, that 7,000-ton figure probably represents only a small fraction of the total CFC-11 production even within Shandong and Hebei provinces, according to Sunyoung Park, one of the study’s authors and an atmospheric chemist at South Korea’s Kyungpook National University. The remainder is now banked in the foam insulation or other products it was used to manufacture and will slowly leak out over the course of the century.

These reported violations of the Montreal Protocol come at an especially perilous moment. The so-called Kigali Amendment to the protocol went into effect in January.It begins an 80 percent phasedown by midcentury in the production and use of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), the chemicals that replaced CFCs in air conditioning, refrigeration, and foam insulation starting in the 1990s.HFCs are much less harmful than CFCs for the ozone layer. But they have turned out to be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a cause of global warming, with the potential to add half a degree Celsius of warming by the end of the century. The danger now, according to some observers, is that the shift away from HFCs will push some manufacturers to fall back on an illegal trade in CFCs.

The growth in CFC-11 emissions in northeast China from 2008 to 2017, showing a significant spike between 2014 to 2017.

The growth in CFC-11 emissions in northeast China from 2008 to 2017, showing a significant spike between 2014 to 2017. Rigby et al, Nature 2019

The new emissions aren’t large enough so far to be catastrophic. A separate study last year in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the level of ozone-depleting chemicals in the atmosphere over Antarctica continues to decline at a rate of about .8 percent a year. But that could change as the new emissions make their way up into the stratosphere and begin to break down, a process that typically takes about five years, according to Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist with the Universities Space Research Association at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The reported emissions, if continued, will slow the rate at which these chemicals decrease and could delay recovery of the ozone layer by a decade or more, until the end of the century, according to Stephen Montzka, of the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an author on both Nature studies. On the other hand, he says, “If they go away quickly, the influence should be small.”

The Chinese source of the emissions was expected. A report last year by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an independent nonprofit group, found that 18 of 21 manufacturers it contacted in the region around Beijing readily acknowledged use of CFC-11 in discussions with an undercover agent posing as a commercial buyer. That investigation caused the Chinese government to shut down two manufacturing locations. It has also recently promised to strengthen its campaign against illegal production of ozone-depleting chemicals. But it will not be easy. A report in The New York Times described the culprits as small, mobile plants that often operate in out-of-the-way locations, without commercial registration, or even a name.

The manufacturers appear, moreover, to be adept at circumventing enforcement. When an EIA investigator visited one company, for instance, he noticed a bank of legal HFC canisters and asked what they were for, since the company actually used CFC-11 in its products. “Well, this is for the government when they come by to check on us,” a salesman replied, according to Alexander von Bismarck, EIA’s director. CFCs don’t have any obvious identifying characteristics, like color or smell. Thus as of last November, Chinese enforcement officers had managed to identify only 10 instances of continuing CFC-11 production, despite visiting 1,172 production plants.

A nonprofit group recommended steps that China needs to take to stop black-market manufacturing of these banned chemicals.

“China needs to crack down on the drivers of this program,” said von Bismarck. “Their first argument was that it wasn’t really happening. It was too embarrassing. Now they are saying, ‘This is really hard to enforce,’ and we actually agree, because production is happening in these meth lab-like facilities. The answer is that you really have to deter the demand side. If they say it’s tough to go around the country checking meth labs, then check the people who are using it. Go into any building, or any construction site, and you can test the insulation foam.”

The Chinese government’s own well-intended development programs appear to have inadvertently aggravated the problem. It is aggressively promoting a national system of cold storage and refrigerator trucks, for safer handling of its food supply. It has also added ultra-efficient energy standards to its massive national construction program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Both initiatives require heavy reliance on foam insulation.

“But this should not be treated as an isolated China issue,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, the climate change lead for EIA. “One has to understand the drivers that caused this to happen, or a year later it could happen in India, or Mongolia, or Bangladesh. The key drivers are explosive growth in demand for polyurethane insulation, both rigid board and blown-in foam, combined with the low cost and high effectiveness of CFC-11 as a blowing agent.”

Tanks at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province that contain a mixture of spray foam used in insulation.

Tanks at a factory in Dacheng, Hebei Province that contain a mixture of spray foam used in insulation. Courtesy of the Environmental Investigation Agency

In its report, EIA recommended a series of steps China needs to take to stop black-market manufacturing of ozone-depleting chemicals, including targeted testing of products, with well-publicized seizures, arrests, and prosecutions, and with penalties “severe enough to deter repeat offenses.” EIA also urged China to work with industry and the Multilateral Fund, which helps developing countries comply with their obligations under the Montreal Protocol, “to enable the swift adoption of environmentally friendly blowing agents in the foam industry” to replace both CFCs and HFCs. The likely candidates are chemicals called HFOs (or hydrofluoroolefins), with demand now expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. But HFOs are expensive, with many of the key patents held by major corporations, including Dupont and Honeywell.

For the Montreal Protocol and its parties, the EIA report recommended closing a loophole that allows trade in CFC-11 once it is blended into a polyol, one of the liquid components used to produce blow-in foam insulation at a construction site. The EIA report advocated that all signatory nations also put legal responsibility for use of banned substances on the construction contractors involved. And it urged the Montreal Protocol to undertake the first really comprehensive review of its monitoring and enforcement regime.

A key part of that involves enhancing AGAGE, the global system of atmospheric monitoring sites. The first African observatory recently opened in Rwanda, under the direction of Rwandan scientists. But given the parts-per-trillion measurements required, each observatory can monitor only to a distance of at most 600 miles upwind, “depending on how fast the wind is blowing,” said Ronald Prinn, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, who has led AGAGE since the 1970s. Despite conversations with interested officials in Brazil and India, neither government has yet committed to establishing an observatory. Thus South America and most of Asia remain uncovered.

China’s station that monitors ozone-depleting chemicals is in the heart of the illicit manufacturing areas.

One country that has paid for a proper monitoring facility is China, which has an observatory in Shangdianzi, about 60 miles northeast of Beijing. But it is 5,000 miles west to the next available AGAGE station, which is in northern Italy, and that gap leaves uncovered many countries where environmental law is minimal to nonexistent.

The Chinese observatory is coincidentally in the heart of the illicit manufacturing area described in the new study from Nature. But Shangdianzi also turns out to be a spectacular instance of how complicated, messy, and even at times self-contradictory the business of saving the earth’s atmosphere from ourselves can sometimes be.

Asked why the data from Shangdianzi wasn’t included in the new study, Montzka, a co-author, paused momentarily, then called the monitoring equipment at Shangdianzi “an excellent instrument” and noted that in 2011 China moved it to “a wonderful new building.” But at that point, reporting of CFC-11 numbers from Shangdianzi stopped.

“HUGE irony,” Montzka said. To meet ambitious new energy standards the new observatory had been thoroughly insulated, he said, “with foam insulation that was clearly blown with CFC-11.” The persistent level of contamination remains so high, eight years later, that measurements from Shangdianzi for that ozone-depleting chemical are currently unusable.