Problem Solved?

A crime against humanity” is how The Ecologist in 1991 (May/June) described the depletion of the ozone layer, caused by chemicals (most notably CFCs) used in the production of fridges, air conditioning systems and solvents. Yet with the arrival of CFC-free aerosols on British supermarket shelves the problem is now widely thought of as solved. This view, aside from its willingness to forgive capitalism for over thirty years of avoidable ozone depletion, is complacent. A global solution to the problem is far from secure.

In 1992 in Copenhagen an agreement was reached by 37 nations and the EU to speed up the phasing-out of four major ozone depleting chemicals. CFCs would be banned in these counties 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 m 1985, but still represented an important problem. Meanwhile, some CFC producers, for example in Russia and China, were prepared to by-pass international law, as CFC smuggling started.

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 useable 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 DuPont 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 US 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 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 is certainly room for doubt — only 85 per cent of their pledges to help phase out CFCs have been met so far.

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.

Dan Greenwood