Why Is an Ozone-Destroying Chemical Coming Back, and How Do We Stop It?

Illustration for article titled Why Is an Ozone-Destroying Chemical Coming Back, and How Do We Stop It?
Photo: NASA

The ozone hole, which we’ve previously described as the “quintessential ‘80s problem” became alarmingly relevant again this week. Scientists reported that emissions of trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11), an ozone-destroying substance banned under the Montreal Protocol, have apparently been rising since 2012. Despite a global treaty prohibiting CFC-11's use, someone’s breaking the law.

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So, why is someone fucking with our ozone layer, and how do we stop them?

Data from 12 atmospheric observatories around the world showed CFC-11 levels in our atmosphere had been declining at a steady clip for years as the banned substance once widely used in refrigerators, air conditioning units, and foaming devices slowly decays out. But after 2012, the decline began to slow, consistent with a new source of about 14,000 tons of CFC-11 per year.

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While that’s a small number compared with the CFCs we were pumping out in the heydey of hairspray, Steve Montzka, lead author of the study published in Nature, told Earther via email that if the emissions persist, recovery of the ozone hole could be delayed “by about a decade.”

“This is really the first non compliance story that I’ve seen since the [Montreal] Protocol was signed,” Susan Strahan, an atmospheric chemist at NASA who wasn’t involved in the new research, told Earther.

It’s tough to imagine that someone would deliberately manufacture an illegal CFC, when there are readily available substitutes for most applications. But Montzka pointed out that CFCs aren’t necessarily being made on purpose.

“The chemical industry produces thousands of tons of chlorinated and fluorinated methanes for many purposes, like making teflon, PVC, solvents, etc,” he wrote. “This process could produce CFC-11 if not done carefully.”

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It’s also conceivable that there’s been a dramatic uptick in use or destruction of the CFC “bank”—old refrigerators, air conditioning units, and fire extinguishers—although Montzka and his colleagues consider this scenarios pretty unlikely.

Whatever the reason, we won’t find it until we can pinpoint the source of the new CFC-11. So far, emissions data from a Hawaiian observatory suggests the culprit lies somewhere in east Asia, a huge and populous geographic region.

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Fortunately, there’s more data at our disposal and readily collectible that could shed light on the matter. Montzka noted that China, South Korea, and Japan all have long-term measurement records “that, once analyzed, will likely help us pinpoint the location of this increased source.”

Aircraft missions could also help. “NASA has aircraft with all kinds of cool instruments that’ll measure exactly how much of a given CFC is there,” Strahan said, pointing to the pollution-sniffing ATom mission as one example. “If you suspect it’s in a certain region, you could go fly over, or downstream.”

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CFC-11 is part of a family of chlorofluorocarbons or freons that were once widely used in a range of applications, until we realized that they were creating a giant hole in the ozone layer. World leaders decided to ban them with a global treaty that phased out CFCs during the ‘90s and aughts.

And for a while, it looked it like was working. Concentrations of ozone-destroying chlorine have been falling in the atmosphere, and the ozone hole is slowly healing.

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Hopefully, scientists can track down the culprit of the new emissions soon, and the international community can figure out how to snuff them out. But that raises to another issue: How do you enforce a 30 year old treaty nobody’s ever violated?

“What would be done about it I don’t know,” Strahan said. “It’s not like there is a Montreal Protocol police.”

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Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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DISCUSSION

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Let’s start a new Gizmodo Media vertical called Earther Forensics Environmental Investigation Unit or Earther FEIU. Forensics environmental investigation is actually a thing. In essence, FEI is used to find out who, what, where, when, how and why some asshole spilled, dumped, emitted or discharged some nasty shit onto the land and into the air and water. Environmental consultants get paid handsomely to do this. Let’s fuck with their shit and do it for free here in the comments.

While the 80s was peak discharge of ozone depleting chemicals, it really wasn’t until the 1990s that systems and products mitigation and modification really started to begin.

Back in the 1990s, the mantra was to move everything to Asia. Even the shit we dumped onto Mexico and the rest of latin America started to move to Asia. “Shutter the plant and move operations to China” was the rallying cry of many I-bankers, M&A lawyers, corporate raiders, LBO dickfores, proto private equity jagoffs, and some other kind of pricks. China was aching to get manufacturing going in almost all sectors. We were excited about cutting cost. Well, except for billing rates of corporate lawyers merging industrial companies and moving as much as humanly possible to Asia.

A chemical plant is process (or reactant/product) specific. So a nice chemical plant for refrigerants will have to get totally modified almost from scratch or get shuttered and scraped. The alternative to demolition and torch cutting stainless steel vessels into scrap is to carefully tear down, package, and ship the entire plant to Mexico, China, India or Pakistani and rebuild it there.

The biggest refrigerants manufacturers use to be DuPont, Honeywell and Mexichem. China has now taking over as the world’s biggest refrigerant chemicals manufacturer.

Asian countries sent bright kids to the US for advanced degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering during the 80s through 00s - just as much or more so than it sent bright kids to computer science bullshit. It’s not like they couldn’t re-engineer a packaged chemical plant received from US of A. A plant could be as simple as a batch reactor or it could be the biggest continuous flow chemical manufacturing complex in the world. That’s China nowadays.

China as a matter of fact is becoming the largest petroleum refiner in the world. Will surpass US sooner than later. A large portion of its total refining capacity is done by small mom and pop refineries called “teapots.” These are basically less than a tenth the size of a typical US refinery and operated at will (or willy nilly). There ain’t shit for environmental pollution control - despite the communist government cracking down on teapots. This mom and pop tea pot mentality extends to petrochemicals and chlorinated/fluorinated hydrocarbons, too.

Let’s assume no one is expressily manufacturing CFC-11. Instead manufacturers “FCC-Eleven.” Same physical and chemical properties - but different, as indicated on the MSDS sheet in Chinese. Or let’s assume the piece of shit chemical plant held together by JB-Weld and Bondo has a horrible reaction conversion efficiency - where only about 50 percent of the expected product is obtained. That means a shitload of “bi-products” and “incompletes” get either vented or discharged. Only the angels know what gets vented.

You could have NOAA/NASA do a top/down monitoring from air or space. Or you could check what’s on sale this week under chemicals from Alibaba. Fuck me, you can buy petcoke in bags or bulk on Alibaba. I’m assuming refrigerants of all kinds, too. There’s always a market for classic chemicals. You know, the ones that actually work, but are hazardous to human health and the environment.