The Geneva meeting was the latest in a series which is keeping the global Montreal Protocol on protection of the ozone layer under continuous review. The key meeting this year will be in November, when the Protocol will be up for amendment.
Recent scientific findings have given added urgency to the review process. These indicate that ozone depletion, already substantial over Antarctica and adjoining areas in the spring and summer, is also proceeding faster than expected in northern mid-latitudes.
The Geneva meeting was held in a fairly low key. Official delegations simply put forward their proposals for faster reductions in emissions, and little negotiation took place. The pace is expected to quicken at a further meeting in July.
The main proposals came from the EC, whose Member States agreed a common position for the meeting in March (ENDS Report 206, pp 37-8 ), the USA, Canada, and the EFTA countries, led by Sweden, Norway, Austria and Switzerland. They covered:
Although all countries are agreed that provision should be made for "essential" uses of CFCs to be allowed beyond whatever phase-out deadline is agreed, the US delegation threw a spanner in the works by proposing that a similar exception should be permitted for the servicing of existing CFC equipment. A dominant factor behind this appears to be a concern about the costs which would otherwise be incurred in retrofitting existing vehicles with CFC-free air conditioning systems.
According to a report prepared for the meeting by a technical committee, these will be anywhere between $220 and $2,500 per vehicle - a global bill of over $24 billion for the 111 million cars likely to require retrofitting if CFCs were banned by 1997. About two-thirds of these vehicles are in the USA. Sympathy for its case on this issue is not high.
At Geneva, the USA and EC and EFTA countries all proposed that the ban should be brought forward to 1 January 1996, although Canada held out for a deadline of 1 January 2000. The EC also proposed an interim phase-out target of 50% by 1 January 1994 - less demanding than the 85% cut it is seeking for other ozone depleters because the chemical is widely used by numerous small businesses which may face difficulties in making a rapid transition to alternative cleaning chemicals or processes.
The case for a phase-out appears strong. Methyl bromide has an ozone depletion potential of about 60% of that of the CFCs, making it a clear candidate for control under the Protocol. However, there is some uncertainty about how effective a ban would be. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 50% of the methyl bromide in the atmosphere comes from man-made sources, while the remainder is primarily from marine sources. In contrast, a leading producer, Ethyl Corporation, puts the natural contribution at 75-95%.
The case for a ban was developed by a scientific panel set up under the Protocol. Its calculations suggest that a 10% reduction in the total emission of methyl bromide would be equivalent in its effect on the ozone layer to advancing the CFC phase-out by three years.
The chemical companies affected by a ban would include Great Lakes Chemical - also a major halon manufacturer - Ethyl, the French firms Rhone Poulenc and Atochem, and a major Israeli producer, Dead Sea Bromide.
The main applications of methyl bromide are in fumigation of soils, grain, buildings and transport containers, and as a pesticide. The USA is a major user, consuming about 20,000 tonnes annually. Consumption in the UK is believed to be less than 1,000 tonnes per year.
On two other major issues addressed at the Geneva meeting there is much less clarity on the regulatory prospects.
Many CFC and halon producers began developing these as substitutes three or four years ago when concern for the ozone layer had yet to reach its present pitch, and many user industries have come to regard them as indispensable if they are to make a rapid transition away from CFCs and halons. However, the ozone depletion potentials of several of the new chemicals are high enough in today's climate of concern for the regulators to be turning their minds to ensuring that they do not remain in use longer than absolutely necessary.
The EC is pursuing a belt and braces approach to the issue. At Geneva, it argued for a combination of ceilings on HCFC and HBFC consumption, controls on the applications in which they may be used, and a phase-out date - though without tabling any specific proposals.
The USA took a different tack, arguing that different phase-out deadlines, determined on the basis of the ozone depletion potential of different HCFCs and HBFCs, would suffice. It appears to have in mind a range of phase-out deadlines between 1994 and 2020.
Industry's main concern is that whatever approach is chosen, enough time should be given to manufacturers to obtain a pay-back on investment in HCFC and HBFC production capacity, and for users to be confident that the chemicals will be available for a sufficiently long period to justify investments in any necessary new equipment.
Some countries clearly feel that these demands cannot be satisfied for all of the new chemicals. The EFTA bloc, for example, proposed that HBFCs should be banned from 1 January 1995. This would put paid to the hopes of Great Lakes Chemical to commercialise an HBFC, known as FM-100, as a halon substitute. The chemical has a higher ozone depletion potential than the CFCs.
On the other hand, there is strong pressure from several user industries for allowance to be made for substantial growth in HCFC consumption. Otherwise, the argument goes, the transition away from CFCs would be delayed, with grave consequences for the ozone layer.
According to the report of a technology and economics panel, the main demand for HCFCs will come from the plastic foams and refrigeration and air-conditioning sectors. By 1997, they will need 385,000 tonnes of the chemicals out of a total demand of 423-517,000 tonnes. Current annual global HCFC consumption is around 150,000 tonnes. These estimates are based largely on industrial claims that no other chemicals would deliver an equivalent performance to that obtainable with CFCs and HCFCs, and it remains to be seen whether the regulators will take a different view of the sacrifices that can be made in product performance in the interest of protecting the ozone layer.
Alternatives are lacking in some applications. CFC-free propellants have yet to be devised for oral inhalant drugs. And CFC substitutes have yet to be developed in some minor precision cleaning and electronics applications.
On the other hand, although ozone-benign alternatives to halons have not been identified for some applications, a committee which considered the issue concluded that the need to produce new halons could be avoided if adequate incentives were provided to recover and recycle those in circulation.