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Profit enhancing chemicals

A "crime against humanity" is how The Ecologist in 1991 (May/June) described the depletion of the ozone layer, caused by chemicals (most notably Chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs) used in the production of fridges, air conditioning systems and solvents. Yet with the arrival of CFC-free aerosols on supermarket shelves the problem is now widely thought of as solved. This view ignores over thirty years of avoidable ozone depletion and is complacent, given the potential consequences of the continued use of ozone depleting chemicals.

In 1992 in Copenhagen an agreement was reached by 37 nations and the European Union to speed up the phasing-out of four major ozone depleting chemicals. CFCs would be banned in these countries from 1 January this year. Yet many developing countries did not sign and had only agreed to a phasing-out of CFCs by 2010. Global CFC emissions still totalled 360,000 tonnes in 1995. This was a significant reduction from the 1 million tonnes in 1985, but still represented an important problem.

The European Union has agreed to not issue any import licenses for virgin CFCs, except for essential uses. However, as the Environmental Investigation Agency (www.eia-international.org) point out, it "is still legal to import recycled, re-used and reclaimed CFCs from outside Europe provided the party is in possession of a licence."

Meanwhile, some CFC producers, for example in Russia and China, are prepared to by-pass international law, through CFC smuggling. Europe has become the hub of an illegal trade in CFCs, as reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency. Because it is illegal, it is difficult to measure but this trade is thought to involve between 10,000 and 20,000 tonnes.

The HCFCs now being widely used as replacements for CFCs are also ozone depleters, albeit less intense and with a shorter atmospheric lifetime than CFCs. HCFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases. A report from the United Nations Environment Programme advised that HCFCs are "best reserved for applications where there is no other technically feasible substitute" (The Science of Ozone Depletion, Friends of the Earth, June 1991).

There are usable alternatives to CFCs and HCFCs. Ozone-friendly hydrocarbons are now widely used in European-made refrigerators and air conditioners. Mixtures of soap, water and other harmless chemicals can replace CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances in cleaning solvents. ICI and Du Pont, the world's main producers of CFCs and now of HCFCs, have attempted to discredit these ozone-friendly alternatives over the past twenty years but they are now widely agreed to be viable (Back to the Future-CFC Alternatives, Greenpeace International, December 1994).

Du Pont and ICI, like any company, need to get a return on their investments. But, as The Ecologist pointed out in 1991, an immediate introduction of ozone-friendly substitutes would have caused Du ICIPont and ICI to "lose the huge profits they hope to make from patents and licencing fees on HFCs and HCFCs". This was why, according to Environment magazine (July/August 1993), these multi-national corporations argued the need for a slower phase-out of HCFCs "so that businesses would be able to recoup their research, development and capital investments".

The Copenhagen agreement was committed to reducing HCFC emissions by 99.5 percent by 2020- this slow phase-out suited the producers of HCFCs, especially the U.S.A. who use HCFCs to produce most of the world's air cooling systems. Meanwhile, developing countries are free to increase their use of HCFCs until 2016 when, according to the Vienna Convention, they will freeze their HCFC use at 2015 levels. The Treaty's technology assessment panel had wanted a freeze from 2006 to discourage industrial nations from dumping obsolete equipment that use HCFCs in poorer countries. The New Scientist has pointed out that this concession

could result in a massive increase in the use of (HCFCs) over the next few years before a ban comes into force so as to maximize the 2015 limit (December 16 1995).

Achieving even this target will be no easy matter. The commitment of developing countries such as India and China depends upon whether developed countries pay for them to introduce ozone-safe technology. This could lead to further problems because there is no agreement on how much money would be sufficient. It remains to be seen whether developed countries honour their pledges of funds.

There are other ozone-depleting chemicals that have yet to be contained. Methyl bromide, pesticide used to fumigate fruit and vegetables, has recently been recognised as a threat to the ozone layer as serious as CFCs themselves. As Richard Douthewaite notes:

Although the US and Canada demanded a world ban on this chemical by 2001 at a meeting in Caracas in September 1997, major fruit exporting countries including France, Spain, Italy and Mexico objected. A compromise was worked out under which the industrial countries will phase it out by 2005 and the developing world ten years later.(The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet—Richard Douthewaite (2nd edition, Green Books 1999)

Bromine is another powerful ozone depletory which is getting into the atmosphere from the halons used in fire extinguishers. Production of these halons has ceased in the West but still continues in China where, as Douthewaite points out, it can grow until 2002 and continue until 2010.

The Montreal Protocol has brought about significant reductions in the use of CFCs, although this has proved too late to prevent considerable ozone depletion. Writing in 1997, the Environmental Investigation Agency stated:

This spring ozone levels over the Northern Hemisphere were up to 40% thinner than 1979–1982 levels and covered an area half the size of Canada (5.3 million km2). In the Southern Hemisphere during the 1996 winter stratospheric ozone depletion reached 70–80% of pre-ozone hole values and lasted longer than ever before.

There is now known to be a large hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica. Although the hole has yet to reach over human-populated areas, there has been an increase in the incidence of skin cancer among humans due to their greater exposure to ultra-violet rays as the ozone layer is deleted. As the E.I.A. state:

We are now poised on the threshold of a skin cancer epidemic among Caucasians. Estimates project approximately one million cases of skin cancer annually in the USA alone.

As well as posing a health risk to humans, ozone depletion is a threat to the global ecosystem and biodiversity. Ozone depletion is set to continue in the coming years, although the precise extent of this is impossible to predict. Scientists have warned that global warming itself will cause conditions to become more suitable for ozone depleting chemicals to cause damage. As Greenpeace point out, one alternative to ozone depleting chemicals that is being promoted is HFCs, which are themselves a greenhouse gas.

The ozone problem has been greatly worsened whilst environmentally friendly alternatives to HCFCs, HFCs and Methyl Bromide have existed (see http://www.greenpeace.org/) The international response to the ozone problem is seen by many as a success. This assessment tells us more about how little real global co-operation we can expect under capitalism, where belated, partial solutions are all that, at most, ever emerge.