Friday, November 7, 2008

Are We Doing Enough to Protect the Ozone Layer?

The gaping upper atmospheric hole over the Antarctic, famously known as the "ozone hole" may be able to repair itself in about half a century or so, but some experts say it’s still fragile and needs our attention. The ozone layer protects us from ultraviolet-B radiation from the Sun, which causes skin cancers and other harmful conditions. As a thinning ozone layer increases ultra-violet radiation, wildlife feels the negative impact, as well.

Important as it is, we’re simply not doing enough to safeguard the ozone layer, or at least according to one of the scientists who first discovered the big hole over Antarctica.

Dr. Joe Farman was one of three British Antarctic Survey scientists who first reported signs of severe damage to the ozone layer in 1985. He is now openly criticizing the agreement that allows developing countries to keep on using ozone-depleting chemicals until 2040, and other policies that he says are counter-productive.

"Frequent reviews rescued the Montreal Protocol from deficiencies in the original draft, and another comprehensive re-examination is clearly needed," Farman has stated.

The Montreal Protocol regulating these substances is 20 years old this week. Member countries of the Montreal Protocol are meeting soon to review progress. Farman says that we need a much faster phase-out of ozone-destroying chemicals, and for the safe destruction of current stockpiles. Senior figures in the UN, as well as European and US politicians, are starting to listen.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol was designed to phase out chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons which were found to be depleting the ozone layer in the Earth's stratosphere. Industrialized nations phased out almost all CFC production in 1995, with developing countries having a deadline of 2010.

Many of the substances, used in applications such as refrigeration, aerosols and fire-fighting, have been replaced with related families of chemicals including hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). These chemicals are less destructive to the ozone layer, but because production in the developing world is now increasing rapidly, there is renewed concern about their impact.

Current regulations mean that in 2015, developing countries will have to freeze their HCFC use at or below the level it is then, phasing out entirely by 2040.

"The rate of HCFC use is skyrocketing," noted Clare Perry, senior ozone campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). "So it's actually going to cost less to phase it out sooner when investment in plant and equipment is at a lower level."

French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said the EU will be push for a faster phase-out at this week's ozone treaty meeting.

"The schedule for eliminating HCFCs must be pushed up by 10 years - that will be the benchmark for deciding if the negotiations are successful," she said.

Accelerating the phase-out would require new funds from the industrialized world, as well as changes to the current funding regulations. Farman also recommends that cash be set aside to combat leakage of ozone-depleting chemicals, such as the fire retardant halon 1301, from developing world installations.

"There is some production in developing countries," he writes, "but the main source is now through leaks from existing installations, and during recycling. It is surely time to consider collecting the existing stockpile, and destroying it.
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