* Phase-out of chemicals wins backing at Bangkok meet

By Susan Cunningham
The Nation

Denmark won allies last week in its drive to accelerate the phase-out of two chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, hydrochloro-fluorocarbons (HCFCs) and the pesticide methyl bromide.

Twenty-two nations, including the entire European Union, pledged here to phase out their production and consumption of HCFCs by the year 2015, 15 years ahead of the present schedule. They had convened for the annual meeting of 123 signatories to the Montreal Protocol. The 22 nations also promised to limit their HCFC use “to absolutely necessary applications” in the run-up to 2015.

HCFCs were introduced as substitutes for the more destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are used as refrigerants and in the manufacture of insulating foams. Beginning in 1987, CFCs were the original target of international efforts–codified under various Montreal Protocol agreements–to protect the atmospheric ozone layer.

Yet HCFCs, as well as methyl bromide and halon compounds, still destroy ozone, which means that more ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth. Higher levels of radiation increase the risks for skin cancer, eye disease, genetic mutations, and may damage to crops and aquatic life.

While HCFCs were always regarded as stopgap CFC substitutes, superior alternatives are becoming available sooner than had been anticipated. At last year’s protocol meeting in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to freeze their HCFC consumption by 1996 and to completely phase out use by 2030.

The pesticide methyl bromide is used worldwide to fumigate soils, buildings and agricultural commodities, particularly in tropical countries such as Thailand. It is often used to kill pests that infest stored grain. A phase-out will require many countries to revise customs rules that require imported commodities to be treated with the pesticide.

Although there’s isn’t a single replacement for methyl bromide, there are chemical and non-chemical alternatives for many of its current applications. Niche markets are expected to emerge with the development of substitute compounds tailored for particular plants or for grain fumigation. At the Copenhagen meeting last year, many developing countries voiced strong opposition to any controls on methyl bromide.

The failure of some developed countries to join the Danish declarations doesn’t mean they necessarily oppose the initiatives. As is customary at the United Nations, all the protocol meetings here were barred to the press. However, delegates from several countries that did not join the declaration said that their apparent reluctance to join was due to the introduction of the Danish proposal late in the three-day session. They therefore were unable to check with their home industries or obtain authorization from governments back home.

As for the Danish delegates, they were pleased with the initial response to their proposals. Their plan is to pick up more supporters in the coming year and then try to achieve binding agreements from all 123 Montreal parties at the next major meeting in 1995, explained Joergen Hargnazk, the delegation’s leader. Denmark itself aims for a complete HCFC phase-out by 2002, he said.

The declarations covering HCFCs and methyl bromide were unique in the six-year history of the protocol because for the first time three of the 80 member countries from the developing world joined a voluntary declaration. The three pioneers were Botswana, Malta and Zimbabwe.

Most problems with the protocol’s functions and policies regarding deadlines for the gradual phase-out of all damaging chemicals were postponed until the 1995 meeting. At the press conference marking the opening of the conference on November 17, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Programme, deferred any discussion about altering deadlines for developing countries until that date. At last year’s meeting, it was decided that developed countries would prohibit all use of CFCs by 1996, four years ahead of the original deadlines.

Developing countries participating in the protocol, however, aren’t obliged to reduce their CFC consumption until 2000. Their phase-out date is 2010. They face no obligations … §

This story on the annual meeting of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer appeared way back in 1993 in The Nation newspaper in Thailand. A version with less explanatory detail also appeared in International Environment Reporter newsletter. Both were scoops. Hordes of reporters showed up to the U.N. meeting, but weren’t familiar with the protocol, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions at the time (and only a few more seem clued in now.). One other reporter did get the story, but he wrote his version in Danish.

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