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Montevideo, July 19th 2018 - 19:03 UTC

Chinese home insulation blamed for gas emissions damaging the ozone layer

Monday, July 9th 2018 - 08:31 UTC
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The EIA says that its estimates of the amount of the gas being used in China are in the middle of the emissions range calculated by scientists in their report in May. The EIA says that its estimates of the amount of the gas being used in China are in the middle of the emissions range calculated by scientists in their report in May.
China will be encouraged to crack down on the production of CFC-11s and to launch a full-scale investigation with the support of the Montreal Protocol China will be encouraged to crack down on the production of CFC-11s and to launch a full-scale investigation with the support of the Montreal Protocol

Cut-price Chinese home insulation is being blamed for a massive rise in emissions of a gas, highly damaging to the Earth's protective ozone layer. The Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) found widespread use of CFC-11 in China, even though the chemical was fully banned back in 2010.

Scientists have been extremely puzzled by the mysterious rise in emissions. But this report suggests the key source is China's home construction industry. Just two months ago, researchers published a study showing that the expected decline in the use of CFC-11 after it was completely banned eight years ago had slowed to a crawl.

There were suspicions among researchers that new supplies were being made somewhere in East Asia.

Rumors were rife as to the source. There was a concern among some experts that the chemical was being used to secretly enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons. The reality it seems is more about insulation than proliferation.

CFC-11 makes a very efficient “blowing agent” for polyurethane foam, helping it to expand into rigid thermal insulation that's used in houses to cut energy bills and reduce carbon emissions.

Researchers from the EIA, a green campaign group, contacted foam manufacturing factories in 10 different provinces across China. From their detailed discussions with executives in 18 companies, the investigators concluded that the chemical is used in the majority of the polyurethane insulation the firms produce.

One seller of CFC-11 estimated that 70% of China's domestic sales used the illegal gas. The reason is quite simple - CFC-11 is better quality and much cheaper than the alternatives.
The authorities have banned CFC-11 but enforcement of the regulation is poor.

“We were absolutely gob-smacked to find that companies very openly confirmed using CFC-11 while acknowledging it was illegal,” Avipsa Mahapatra from EIA told BBC News.

“The fact that they were so blasé about it, the fact that they told us very openly how pervasive it is in the market, these were shocking findings for us.”

The EIA says that its estimates of the amount of the gas being used in China are in the middle of the emissions range calculated by scientists in their report in May.

The scientist who first highlighted the problem with CFC-11 said the EIA findings seemed plausible, although it was difficult to be definitive.

Dr Stephen Montzka from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) told BBC News: “The pervasiveness of the use of CFC-11 that seems apparent in China based on their survey is quite amazing, although it is hard for me to assess the accuracy of the emission estimate they make to know if it is indeed likely that this activity can explain all or most of what we are observing in the global atmosphere.”

This is a big deal because of the amount of the dodgy chemical being used and its potential to reverse the healing that's starting to take place in the ozone layer.

China's polyurethane foam makes up about one-third of global production, so if they are predominantly using an ozone-depleting substance it will set back the closing of the ozone hole by a decade or more.

As well as the ozone layer, CFC-11 has a warming impact. Researchers estimate that if the use of the chemical continues, it would be the equivalent of CO₂ from 16 coal-fired power stations every year!

As China is a signatory of the Montreal Protocol that governs the use of ozone-depleting substances, it should be possible to put trade sanctions in place. However, since the protocol was signed in 1987, this weapon of last resort has never been used and it's not expected in this case.

What's more likely is that China will be encouraged to crack down on the production of CFC-11s and to launch a full-scale investigation with the support of the Montreal Protocol secretariat.

“It is critical for the government of China not to treat these as isolated incidents,” said Avipsa Mahapatra from the EIA.

“We want them to clamp down but it's supremely important for them to carry out a comprehensive investigation into the sector. It has to result in seizures, it has to result in arrests so that people know there are harsh penalties for the production of CFC-11.”

Delegates to the Montreal Protocol are meeting this week in Vienna and they will try to come up with a plan to tackle the issue.

Ozone is formed in the stratosphere some 15 to 30km above the surface of the Earth by the interaction of solar ultraviolet radiation with oxygen in the air. In this location, the newly formed ozone absorbs ultraviolet radiation, preventing most of it from reaching the ground. This is important because ultraviolet radiation can lead to skin cancer and eye damage in humans, can damage crops and marine life.

Scientists have been extremely puzzled by the mysterious rise in emissions. But this report suggests the key source is China's home construction industry. Just two months ago, researchers published a study showing that the expected decline in the use of CFC-11 after it was completely banned eight years ago had slowed to a crawl.

Categories: Environment, International.

Top Comments

Disclaimer & comment rules
  • DemonTree

    Ah, so bashing China is more important to Trumpists than bashing science. Good to know.

    Jul 09th, 2018 - 07:22 pm +1
  • chronic

    China cheating?

    Jul 09th, 2018 - 01:03 pm 0
  • DemonTree

    Chronic thinks caring about truth, justice and evidence is perverse.

    Jul 10th, 2018 - 11:06 pm 0
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