Curtailing the ozone experiment

In these recessionary times, many environmental research projects face an uncertain future. But one large-scale experiment in atmospheric chemistry is now assured of long-term support. The decisions taken at the international meeting in Copenhagen in November to revise the Montreal Protocol have guaranteed that the ozone layer will remain under threat well into the next century (see pp 13-15 ).

There should be no pretence that the choices confronting negotiators in Copenhagen were easy. In particular, they faced the dilemma between accelerating the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals to reduce the maximum risk which, come what may, the ozone layer will face a few years hence, and squeezing some industries so hard that they would be left too short a transitional period, and too few options, to remain in business. The outcome was, on most issues, a regulatory package which was the best that could be secured in a gathering with so many competing interests involved.

But environmentalists were right to be angry about some parts of the Copenhagen deal. The most notable failure concerned the so-called transitional chemicals, the HCFCs. The agreement will allow millions of tonnes of HCFCs to be produced in the next ten years, rewarding those sectors - especially refrigeration - which have done least to curb wastage and leaks of CFCs and least to look for ozone-benign alternatives with a seemingly plentiful supply of ozone-depleting substitutes over that period. It is also a major concession to companies which have been developing new HCFC manufacturing capacity, exemplifying once again the difficulties of placing regulations on a scientific footing once a powerful industrial lobby has taken its investment strategy down an environmentally unsustainable path.

The message that has gone out to prospective HCFC users is that they now have the certainty about future HCFC supplies which they have been craving to permit them to switch from CFCs. Yet before they take the HCFC route they should speculate for a moment about future regulatory trends. In doing so they could recall that pretty well every time some worrying new scientific finding about ozone depletion was made in the past five years, it was quickly replaced by another, even more pessimistic, observation or computer projection. They could then cast their gaze to the future, and observe that the scientific consensus is that ozone depletion will intensify over the next 10-15 years before it abates. And they might then reasonably conclude that there will be irresistible public pressure for the agreement reached in Copenhagen to be tightened once more, and then possibly once again.

That conclusion was surprisingly echoed by Environment Minister David Maclean shortly after his return from Copenhagen - surprisingly because the Government has insisted all along that HCFCs are essential to a rapid transition away from CFCs. On HCFCs, he wrote in a letter to a national newspaper, "industry knows how the Montreal Protocol process works. The level of the cuts we require will be increased and the dates when they are required will be brought forward long before we reach them." The message, then, to companies still looking at their CFC phase-out options is not that HCFC supplies are assured well into the next century, but that the chemicals should be regarded very much as a last resort.

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