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Under the radar

Analysis by the EIA suggests that legal loopholes may allow the black market trade in ozone-depleting substances to continue and threaten ozone layer recovery, says Fionnula Walravens

Following global concern regarding increased use of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was created in 1987.

Since ratified by 197 nations, the protocol establishes legally binding controls on the national production and consumption of ODS, with complete phase-out as the final goal.

Illicit trade in ODS began following the first wave of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) phase-outs and continues to this day, threatening to jeopardise the success of the treaty.

Global demand for refrigerants has risen significantly, with peak HCFC consumption approximately three times greater than CFC production at its highest.

It is therefore likely that the scale of illegal HCFC trade will be larger than that seen for CFCs.

EIA’s latest briefing Trends in ODS Smuggling brings together analysis of trade and emissions data, recent reported seizures and a look at the global refrigerant and feedstock market to highlight some areas of concern that need to be addressed to tackle illegal ODS trade.

Customs trade data analysis highlights significant discrepancies between China’s reported HCFC-22 exports to various countries and their reported HCFC-22 imports from China.

On average, reported imports of HCFC-22 are 32 per cent lower than China’s reported exports.

In many instances, the discrepancy is larger. While there are several possible explanations for this, EIA is concerned that HCFC-22 exports from China are being mis-declared as other non-ODS alternatives upon import.

ODS are often declared as HFC-134a, a non-ozone destroying refrigerant and therefore not currently under ODS licensing systems, although this will change in Europe in 2015 as the HFC phase-down and quote allocation system comes into force.

Recent seizures

In January 2014, Russian enforcement agencies seized more than 1,500 cylinders of CFCs and HCFCs of Chinese origin that had been mis-declared as ethylene glycol and HFC-134a.

Refrigerants were poured from original cylinders into Russian cylinders labelled as containing ozone-safe refrigerants.

An earlier case of illegal trade in CFCs to Russia involved the seizure of 39 tonnes of virgin CFCs falsely labelled as recycled material.

In May, a Chinese TV investigation revealed widespread use of CFC-12 in aerosol cans sold on the Chinese car trade market.

The cans were labelled as HFC-134a and sold as top-ups for mobile AC. Of the 12 cans tested, only two were found to contain HFC-134a.

The investigation estimated about 80 per cent of all cans marked as HFC-134a in the Chinese auto trade could contain CFC-12.

The use of import for re-export allocations to divert ODS onto black markets is common and has been used bring black market CFCs into Europe markets in the past.

Despite Europe’s 2015 total HCFC ban, the ongoing use of HCFC for import and re-export will be allowed until the end of 2019, a significant loophole for would-be smugglers.

Another area of concern raised by EIA is the potentially huge illegal trade in ODS shipped in large tanks, such as ISO tanks.

EIA research suggests that despite more than half of all global refrigerant shipments being made in large tanks, verification of the contents using refrigerant identifiers in some regions is inadequate.

This appears to be due to a lack of understanding within customs as to how the contents of large tanks can be verified using handheld identifiers.

ODS feedstocks are used as building blocks in the manufacture of other chemicals.

They are most commonly used to manufacture HFCs, fluoropolymers and other ODS. EIA is concerned about unexpectedly high atmospheric concentrations of two ODS feedstocks, carbon tetrachloride (CTC) and CFC-113a.

Although emissive use of these ODS is banned, their use as a feedstock is allowed because, when the Montreal Protocol was established, it was believed emissions from this use were very low.

But recent scientific reports using atmospheric data found that observed CTC emissions are as much as 40 times greater than would be expected from reported feedstock use.

Similarly, atmospheric concentrations CFC-113a are increasing at dramatic rates and are much higher than would be expected from reported feedstock uses.

The Montreal Protocol’s ability to control feedstock uses and emissions of ODS could prove to be its undoing.

We are seeing positive signs of ozone layer recovery; however, increasing atmospheric concentrations of ODS used as feedstocks may undermine this. 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that if the Montreal Protocol can’t verify the end use of ODS declared as feedstock, then some will inevitably end up on black a huge number of smaller commercial and public end-users that are still blithely running on R22 markets.

Fionnula Walravens is senior climate campaigner for the Environmental Investigation Agency

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