Bad news on ozone


September 16 was the first International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, marking the anniversary of the signing in 1987 of the international Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. While the occasion was a PR exercise for governments like our own, keen to be seen to be doing something, it follows some bad news.

Environment ministers are due to meet in December in Vienna to agree on further controls on ozone-depleting chemicals in the light of worsening ozone depletion. However, the last preparatory meeting of the Montreal Protocol, between August 28 and September 1, broke down completely over financial issues and disagreements between rich countries of the North and poor countries of the South.

Two new scientific reports, released in the last fortnight, show that ozone depletion has reached new levels over both the Arctic and Antarctic. The UN World Meteorological Organisation announced on September 12 that the Antarctic ozone hole is now twice the size it was at the same time in 1993 and 1994. The Second European Stratospheric Arctic and Mid-latitude Experiment (SESAME) reports that the ozone loss over the northern hemisphere in early spring reached 35% in places — a new high.

Other sections of the media and scientific community reported a different finding on September 15, saying that international efforts to limit production of ozone-destroying compounds were working. This claim, containing only an element of truth, served to confuse the issue and was pounced on by environment minister John Faulkner as evidence that Australia is doing the right thing.

The announcement by a team from the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Physics on the eve of September 16 concentrated on the lower rate of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) entering the stratosphere. These are one of a number of compounds agreed to be phased out by 1996.

The "alternatives" to CFCs promoted by industry because they can be used with existing technology and are therefore a cheap option, are HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), which also are damaging to ozone, though less so than CFCs. Levels of these compounds are rising dramatically — one form by 15 times and another six-fold — according to research involving Britain's East Anglia University.

In negotiations at Copenhagen in 1992, the UN stepped back from its goal to ban HCFCs by 2005, under pressure from industry. The new deadline is for production to be reduced by 90% by 2015 and phased out by 2020. In the meantime, these compounds will stoke up the levels of ozone-destroying chlorine compounds.

Also highlighted in the SESAME findings is the damage caused by methyl bromide, which releases bromine, a substance 60 times more destructive of ozone than chlorine.

Methyl bromide is used in agriculture to fumigate soil, fruit and vegetables. Opposition to its phasing out has come mainly from Israel, the European Community and Third World countries heavily dependent on exporting fruit and vegetables. There is no agreement yet on phasing out methyl bromide.

The breakdown in talks on the Montreal Protocol has shown a further obstacle to even the watered-down provisions.

The underdeveloped countries require financial aid if their economies are to switch to ozone-friendly technology. The provision of this aid was one of the main stumbling points in the negotiations.

In addition, capitalists in the North persist in dumping obsolete, polluting technology in the South. Chemical companies are continuing to produce ozone-depleting chemicals in the South and are also producing the chemicals in the North and exporting them.

Despite the obfuscation by the media and politicians, it is obvious that the elimination of ozone-destroying compounds should have priority over the convenience and profit rates of destructive industries. The choice is clearer: people or profits.