Senthil Ratnasabapathy

VIENNA, Dec. 7 (IPS) -- More than 100 countries agreed today to apply more controls on ozone depleting substances, but some are already asking whether they have gone far enough to halt the worsening damage to the ozone layer.

After three days of negotiations running late into last night, delegates to the meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer agreed to restrict the production and use of the three main ozone depleting substances.

Under the agreement, the developed countries agreed on a phase out date on methyl bromide and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), two of the three main ozone depleters, said Martin Bartenstein, president of the meeting said.

Developing countries agreed to keep to their present phase out deadline for the third chemical, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and had agreed to phase out HCFCs and freeze use of methyl bromide, he said.

Environmental NGOs, which had called upon for more drastic measures to stop ozone depletion, and also some countries criticized the agreements as not going far enough.

"The chemical industries in both North and South have finally managed to wreck the world's first international environmental agreement, securing for themselves years of future markets for ozone destroying chemicals," said Greenpeace spokesman Clive Bates.

"For the first time, the will to protect the thinning ozone layer has been overtaken by the desire to advance commercial interests and cut financial support for the South." The layer of ozone molecules in the stratosphere, between 15 and 50 kilometers above the earth's surface, prevents harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun flooding the earth. Over exposure to ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer, damage crops and kill essential microscopic marine life.

The U.N. Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization say the ozone layer is thinning at a rate of 4-5 per cent per decade in the northern and southern hemispheres. The hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic is now twice the size of Europe and growing as ozone depleting chemicals rise up through the atmosphere and split the ozone molecules.

The Montreal Protocol, designed to halt production of ozone depleters and reverse the crisis, was agreed in 1987 and since then has been amended several times, with the controls tightened each time. It has 150 parties.

As part of the Protocol, a multilateral fund was created in 1991 to promote the phaseout of ozone depleters in the South. The northern countries, the donors to the fund, have pledged $510 million for 1994-1996 and a meeting is to be held next year to consider further funding.

The control measures set out in the Protocol and its amendments has had some effect, even though the degradation of the ozone layer continues; the Protocol's Scientific Assessment Panel reports that CFC concentrations in the stratosphere have finally begun to fall after steady growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

According to the Panel's co-chairman Daniel Albritton, although control measures on CFCs have had results, the ozone layer will be at its most vulnerable over the next decade or so. He said that if methyl bromide emissions were eliminated, there would be a 13 per cent reduction in expected ozone degradation.

Although the scientific evidence warranted a tougher regime, the debate split north and south and west and east, with some strange alliances in between. The developed countries, known here as "Article II" countries, have already agreed to phase out CFCs by end of this year. The developing, or "Article V" countries, had earlier agreed to phase out by year 2010. In Vienna, a group of nations led by India, withmajor CFC industries, insisted on a "service tail" allowing them another ten to twenty years grace.

"Our argument is that whatever decisions we take (in Vienna), they should ensure that not a lot of equipment have to be retired prematurely," said Anil K. Agarwal, director of the ozone cell at the Indian ministry of environment and forests.

The Group of 77 developing nations originally supported this proposal before the policy was criticized by some of its members. Some Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, complain that India's cheap CFC exports undermine their efforts to phase them out, and quickly rejected the G-77 position. After more debate the service tail concept was dropped.

The phase out deadline for HCFCs in the developed countries is practically unchanged; under an agreement reached in Copenhagen in 1992, the North agreed to a 99.5 per cent cut by 2020 and a final phase out ten years later. Now they have agreed to a 2020 phaseout with a 0.5 per cent exemption until 2030.

The developing countries will freeze their HCFC production at their 2015 level in year 2016 and finally phase out in 2040.

"It is just cosmetic," said Bates. "One thing it is not clear how they are going to reduce from the production level at the freeze year to zero in twenty four years time." Bates said with the developed countries having to phase out by 2020, the western industries have now been given an opportunity to "dump" this technology in the South until they, too, finally phase out.

After many deliberations, the developed countries have agreed to cut production by half in 2005 and to phase out methyl bromide, mostly used as a soil fumigant, by the year 2010.

They also decided to take up the matter of allowing it to be used for certain "critical" agricultural uses when the next meeting of the Parties takes place in 1997. Signatories also agreed not to export it to countries that have not signed the Protocol's Copenhagen amendment of 1992.

The phase out for the developing countries proved to be a sticking point, with Kenya blocking an early phaseout, one United Nations official said.

The final agreement was that the South will freeze its production in the year 2002 on the basis of their average production during the 1995-1998 period. The final phase out is tobe decided at the 1997 meeting, Bartenstein added.

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‹ Inter Press Service English News Wire, 8 Dec 1995.