Over the second half of the 20th century, the Earth’s ozone layer grew increasingly thinner, and in some places disappeared entirely. It took us decades to realize the culprits were chlorofluorocarbons, commonly called CFCs, but eventually the world’s nations came together to ban them. This agreement, the Montreal Protocol, has been ratified by every United Nations country and has led, in recent years, to the ozone layer actually making a significant comeback.
At least, that’s what everyone thought. Recent research, however, has shown that someone has not been abiding by the treaty, and now we know who. A report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based nonprofit, found the culprit is China.
A study published in Nature in May found something unexpected in the levels of CFCs in the atmosphere. Since the early 1990s, the levels of CFCs in the atmosphere have been decreasing, but starting in about 2012 that decrease has been slowing. This means that someone, somewhere, is still using them despite the worldwide ban since 1996.
The investigation by the EIA found that certain Chinese companies have been illegally using CFC-11, one of the banned chemicals, in the manufacture of insulating foam. These companies use the illegal chemical because it’s cheaper and more effective than the alternatives, and evidently the Chinese government does not effectively discourage them.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, the Montreal Protocol is legally binding, which means the U.N. could fine China for failing to uphold it. The threat of such a fine could compel the country to crack down harder on insulating foam manufacturers, but the damage has already been done. The ozone layer will take years longer to heal than it otherwise would have.
Previously published by: Popular Mechanics USA