Mysterious spike in ozone-destroying chemical is traced to northeast China

Two provinces in China are a source of a troubling spike in emissions of a globally banned chemical that damages the Earth’s protective ozone layer, according to a study published Wednesday that has alarmed scientists who monitor the planet’s atmosphere.

The study, published in the journal Nature, comes one year after another report revealed that air samples had shown a startling excess of a type of chlorofluorocarbon known as trichlorofluoromethane, or CFC-11, since 2012.

This manufactured chemical, once widely used to blow polyurethane into a rigid insulating foam, leaks into the air and destroys ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere. The ozone layer is critical to life, limiting the amount of harmful ultraviolet solar radiation that reaches the planet's surface. CFC-11 is also a potent greenhouse gas, with roughly 4,750 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide.

The new report underscores the need for enforcement of international environmental agreements even when the hazards are clear and profound. And it is a reminder that China's intensifying environmental challenges have global consequences.

"This is a huge problem," a State Department official said Wednesday. The official said the department plans to review the report but has not yet concluded that China is the source of the new emissions.

"If it's a problem in another country, we're also going to be suffering," the official said.

Any production and use of CFC-11 is a violation of the Montreal Protocol, a 1987 agreement that phased out such chemicals in favor of ones that do not damage the atmosphere. The global accord was reached after scientists revealed the existence of an expanding hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

Last year's report did not identify the source of the new emissions beyond saying it is most likely they came from eastern Asia. But authors of the new report identify the provinces of Shandong and Hebei in eastern China as the likely source for at least 40 percent of the emissions.

The researchers based their conclusion on air samples from monitoring stations in South Korea and Japan. Those sampling stations, which feature instruments that can tease out the molecular components of the air, showed periodic spikes in CFC-11. The researchers combined that data with weather forecasts and observations of wind patterns and ran a series of computer models to pinpoint the most likely origin of the emissions. The results pointed to the two Chinese provinces.

"When the wind is blowing in a straight line from that source to the measuring station, you see a spike," said lead author Matt Rigby, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Bristol.

"We hope to work with Chinese colleagues in the future to see if similar signals are visible in their data," Rigby said.

The Montreal Protocol is often held up as a model of global cooperation in protecting the environment, and for what nations can do collectively to combat climate change - another tragedy-of-the-commons crisis, driven by the burning of fossil fuels and other human activity.

The parties to the protocol were alarmed by last year's report and called for "urgent action" to investigate the sources of emissions and enforce the international agreement.

"We cannot relax our vigilance for a second. We cannot let this go unaddressed," Tina Birmpili, head of the U.N. Environment's Ozone Secretariat, said last summer.

The protocol has largely worked as intended, and the authors of the new report reiterate that central message: The ozone layer continues to recover despite the evidence of new emissions.

The problem is that the recovery may be happening more slowly than expected. Levels of CFC-11 in the atmosphere have not declined as rapidly as computer models predicted they would.

There might have been relatively benign explanations. A great deal of CFC-11 is already "banked" in the built world, in the form of insulation that gradually leaks the gas into the atmosphere. Rigby and his colleagues looked at the possibility that new construction, and the replacement of building stock and destruction of older infrastructure, could have released the chemical into the air.

But the numbers didn't add up. The most likely explanation is new production and use of the chemical, he said.

Rigby said that the new emissions of CFC-11 have the global warming equivalent of all the CO2 emitted annually by human activity in the city of London.

Stephen Montzka, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist and co-author of Wednesday's study, as well as the 2018 report, said the latest findings leave important unanswered questions. While researchers traced roughly half of the troubling CFC-11 emissions to the two provinces in China, details about the source for other emissions remain elusive.

"The guessing game is now: Where is the other half coming from?" Montzka said, noting that the study only detailed emissions in a limited region of China, which encompasses about a third of its population.

"Where is the rest coming from? We don't know."

The spike in emissions of CFC-11 raises other questions about why anyone would still manufacture it. The short answer is that CFC-11 is favored by some companies because it is cheaper and more effective than climate-friendly alternatives. That's the conclusion of an investigation published last year by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based environmental watchdog group.

The researchers talked with representatives of 18 companies in 10 Chinese provinces who acknowledged their use of the banned chemical. Six of those companies were in Shandong and Hebei.

After last year's disclosure of new emissions, Chinese authorities cracked down on illegal use of CFCs, seizing 29 tons of chemicals and closing some rogue factories, according to Avipsa Mahapatra, who works for the watchdog group.

But she said the Nature paper indicates that this seized material represents only a fraction of what's being produced and used. She said her investigators talked with companies that hid their use of CFC-11, for example by displaying legal chemicals that could be shown to government inspectors.

"We are just beginning to understand the scale of the problem," she said.

Montzka said he was puzzled by the return of CFC-11.

"The phaseout was supposed to happen in 2010 - and I believe it did," he said. "Why did it come back?"

This may be a case where early detection of the illegal production could lead to action to curb its use, which would minimize impacts on the ozone layer, he said. But given that the chemical typically leaks out of foam over the course of decades, Montzka said, the full extent of the problem remains unknown.

“There’s a chance that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg so far,” Montzka said. “If what we’ve detected is actually only a small fraction of the additional new, illegal production that’s happened since 2010, then the problem could be larger than what we’ve detected so far.”

Joel Achenbach

Joel Achenbach covers science and politics for The Washington Post. He has been a staff writer since 1990. He has been a regular contributor to National Geographic since 1998, writing on such topics as dinosaurs, particle physics, earthquakes, extraterrestrial life, megafauna extinction and the electrical grid.

Brady Dennis

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health issues. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy. Dennis was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for a series of explanatory stories about the global financial crisis.