New curbs on ozone-depleting chemicals take shape

A ban on new uses of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons looks certain to be imposed among industrialised nations by 1 January 1996 at the latest following an official meeting in Geneva during April. The same phase-out deadline is also on the cards for methyl chloroform, a solvent widely used in industry, and the regulatory net may be extended for the first time to methyl bromide, a common fumigant. But uncertainty will persist at least until the end of 1992 on what will be defined as "essential" uses in which these chemicals may be consumed beyond the phase-out deadlines, and how fiercely and in what way the HCFCs - regarded by many industries as vital to the transition away from the most potent ozone depleters - will be regulated.

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:

  • CFCs: The current phase-out deadline for CFCs under the Protocol is 1 January 2000. The EC has a shorter deadline of mid-1997. Canada, the USA and the EC all proposed an accelerated deadline of 1 January 1996, while the EFTA bloc argued for 1 January 1995. Only the EC came forward with a proposal for an interim reduction in CFC consumption of 85% on 1989 levels by 1 January 1994.

    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.

  • Carbon tetrachloride: The phase-out date set in the Protocol for this chemical, used mainly as a feedstock in CFC manufacture, is 1 January 2000. The EC has a shorter, end of 1997, deadline. Again, the EC, USA and Canada want the ban to be brought forward to 1 January 1996, while the EFTA bloc is holding out for a year earlier.

  • Halons: Used in fire-fighting applications, the halons are the most potent of all the ozone depleters. The phase-out deadline under both the Protocol and existing EC legislation is 1 January 2000. The USA and EC proposed in Geneva that the ban should apply from 1 January 1996. Canada proposed a deadline of 1 January 1995, while the EFTA countries again went one better with a proposal of 1 January 1994. The EC, again, was alone in proposing an interim reduction of 85% by 1 January 1994.

  • Methyl chloroform: Widely used as a cleaning solvent in industry, this chemical would be banned from 1 January 2005 under both the Protocol and existing EC rules. Although it has a low ozone depletion potential in comparison with the CFCs and halons, at prevailing levels of consumption it would add significantly to the total chlorine load entering the stratosphere during the critical years when ozone depletion is expected to be at its worst.

    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.

  • Methyl bromide: Indications that this chemical may be brought onto the list of substances controlled under the Protocol only began to emerge towards the end of 1991. The only country to come forward with a specific proposal at Geneva was the USA, which proposed that it should be banned by 1 January 2000.

    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.

  • Transitional substances: This is the term used to describe the HCFCs and HBFCs, chlorinated and brominated fluoro-carbons with lower ozone depletion potentials than the CFCs and halons, respectively.

    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.

  • Essential uses: There is general agreement that the revised Protocol should provide for "essential" uses of CFCs, halons, carbon tetrachloride and methyl chloroform to continue beyond the phase-out deadlines prescribed. However, "essential" has yet to be defined, and most countries have no desire to do so before 1994 in order not to discourage efforts by industry to develop ozone-benign technologies. The one exception is Japan, which argued in Geneva that "essential" uses should be defined this year - apparently out of concern that the proposed ban on methyl chloroform could leave its electronics industry without a suitable cleaning solvent.

    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.

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