87 countries agree to eliminate ozone-depleting chemicals ahead of schedule

November 26, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Spurred by recent evidence that the Earth's protective ozone layer is being depleted even more extensively than feared, the nations of the world agreed yesterday to bring forward yet again the deadline for halting production of the most important ozone-destroying chemicals.

Meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, representatives of 87 countries moved up the phaseout deadline from 2000 to Jan. 1, 1996. The chemicals affected, mainly chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are industrial chemicals widely used as refrigerants, solvents and cleaning agents. The delegates set an even earlier deadline, Jan. 1, 1994, for chemicals known as halons, which are used in fire extinguishers.

The delegates also set a timetable for eliminating hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs. Industry has been relying on those chemicals as interim substitutes for the more potent ozone destroyers pending the development of permanent substitutes. HCFCs, which still deplete ozone but not as much as the chemicals they replace, are now to be eliminated in stages starting in 2004 and ending in 2030.

But the negotiators in Copenhagen refused to ban the production of methyl bromide, a pesticide that had been the only known ozone-depleting chemical that remained unregulated internationally. Instead, they decided to freeze production at 1991 levels in 1995 and to consider further reductions then in light of further scientific evidence.

Scientists estimate that methyl bromide will account for 15 percent of ozone depletion in 2000, and both environmentalists and the Bush administration had strongly advocated curbs on its production.

In practice, the new commitments under a 1987 treaty called the Montreal Protocol will not affect U.S. producers much, because the Bush administration has already adopted regulations on the most important chemicals as stringent as those approved in Copenhagen.

However, the United States did commit itself to increased payments to a fund designed to aid developing countries in adopting substitutes for the ozone-depleting substances. The delegates voted to increase the fund to between $340 million and $500 million for the 1994-96 period, up from $240 million in the previous three-year period. The United States is expected to increase its annual contribution from the current $28 million to $40 million in the next federal budget.

"I think it's another milestone on the way to restoring the ozone layer," William K. Reilly, the head of the U.S. delegation, said of the overall agreement.

Environmentalists praised some aspects of the agreement but criticized others. "It's basically half a loaf," said Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund. "I'm glad they did what they did with the major ozone depleters."

But on the issue of methyl bromide, he said, "they left an important part of the problem unfinished and they're going to have to revisit it soon."

By acting so weakly on methyl bromide, the conferees missed an opportunity to ease the ozone depletion problem just when it is expected to be worst, said Liz Cook, who attended the conference as a member of Friends of the Earth.

That is, ozone depletion is expected to get worse in the years immediately ahead, before the cutbacks in CFCs and other chemicals are fully felt and the ozone shield starts to regenerate itself. Unlike the other chemicals, methyl bromide persists in the atmosphere only a short time, and scientists believe that eliminating it now would ease the increasingly heavy immediate burden.

By reacting with atmospheric chlorine, CFCs and the other chemicals destroy the ozone that blocks the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. The rays cause skin cancer and eye cataracts, and Mr. Reilly said that reductions, like those agreed to in Copenhagen and already ordered in the United States, are expected to result in a million fewer cases of cancer and 20,000 fewer cancer deaths in the United States by the year 2075.

The original 1987 agreement under the Montreal Protocol called for a 50 percent reduction in the production of the ozone-depleting chemicals by 1998. Scientific evidence subsequently suggested that the ozone shield was depleting more rapidly than had been thought, and, in 1990 in London, the treaty's signatories adopted 2000 as the deadline for phasing out the major chemicals altogether.

Since then, the alarm has grown even louder. In October 1991, scientists announced for the first time that the ozone shield had been found weaker over the United States and other temperate-zone countries in summer, when the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays are the strongest and pose the greatest danger to people and crops. At that time, Dr. Mostafa K. Tolba, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said he would reopen negotiations to move up the deadlines. The Copenhagen meeting was the result.

The deadlines adopted at the meeting in Denmark apply to developed countries, which produce an overwhelming share of the world's ozone-depleting chemicals.

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