Chilling News: Spotlight on Illegal CFC Production and Use

The Montreal Protocol’s greatest achievement is in peril. Every nation on earth agreed to eliminate production, import, and export of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the most important ozone-destroying chemicals. And except for small and sanctioned exemptions, such as for asthma inhalers, every nation has reported that it phased out CFCs, developed countries by 1997, and developing countries by 2007. 

Yet as reported in a scientific paper by Montzka, et al., this spring, atmospheric measurements reveal that a major excess amount of CFC-11 is reaching the atmosphere, slowing the rate of decline in tropospheric chlorine concentrations and imperiling the recovery of the ozone layer.  And because CFC-11 is a potent greenhouse gas, with 4,660 times the heat-trapping power of that of carbon dioxide, this excess is also accelerating the dangers of climate change.

The paper calculates an increase in CFC-11 amounting to 13,000 tons per year, plus or minus 5,000 tons, that it has been going on for at least several years, and that it is most likely coming from east Asia.

At the same time, there are also reports of significant ongoing levels of CFC-11 use in certain provinces of China, particularly in the manufacture of polyurethane foam. For example, a New York Times article in June cites Chinese academic and government sources that identify the challenge of regulating the many small-scale manufacturers in Shandong Province, which illegally use CFC-11 for foam blowing and play cat and mouse with government inspectors. Another report provides more data on specific manufacturers that acknowledge continuing to use large amounts of CFC-11, sourced from illegal chemical production facilities.

The illicit CFC-11 use uncovered by these reports may or may not explain the entire atmospheric excess of this chemical.  This may not be the only production process and location where there is illegal CFC-11 manufacture and use. The practice may exist in other industries, other provinces, and other countries. 

But the information in front of us indicates that we have a big problem. We must work together, in the Montreal Protocol family, to solve it.

China has long been an active and constructive partner in global efforts to protect the ozone layer. China is a party to every Montreal Protocol amendment and adjustment controlling ozone-depleting substances, and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection was awarded a 2017 Ozone Award in the category of Policy and Implementation Leadership last November. China was also a leader in achieving the global agreement to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The 2013 agreement between Presidents Xi and Obama opened the door to the global consensus reached in Kigali in 2016. And China is making critical strides to control other kinds of dangerous air pollution.    

The spotlight is now on China to do more to determine the magnitude of illegal CFC-11 production and usage, and to take forceful and effective action to stop it by enforcing its own domestic laws and regulations. Particularly, the Chinese government needs to strengthen province-level capacities to monitor, enforce, and prosecute violations of China’s laws to implement the Montreal Protocol. Many enterprises in China have benefited from assistance provided by the Multilateral Fund to help them transition from CFCs and HCFCs to safer alternatives. The international community can assist China in strengthening enforcement with scientific and technical information. In this way China can restore full compliance with its commitment under the Montreal Protocol—a commitment to all other nations, and to all the people of the world.

And the spotlight is on each other country to determine whether there is illicit production or use of banned ozone-destroying substances within its borders.

The Montreal Protocol has mechanisms to help China and any other country sustain full compliance with its phase-out commitments. Let us work together to solve this problem swiftly and completely, so that the recovery of the ozone layer continues on pace, and so that these banned chemicals do not undermine global efforts to protect our climate.

About the Authors

David Doniger

Senior Strategic Director, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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