A major international environmental conference ended here Tuesday after 13 more nations agreed to join a global accord to save the Earth’s ozone layer from destruction by harmful chemicals.
Their commitment to reduce the consumption of those chemicals by 50% by the turn of the century came in the wake of a drive by major industrial countries, including the United States, to go even further by totally banning the chemicals by the year 2000.
The conference’s achievements were roundly applauded by delegates representing 124 industrialized and developing countries, and a U.S. delegate called the gathering the most significant environmental conference in 17 years.
More Costly Agents
Despite nearly unanimous agreement that the upper atmospheric ozone layer is being destroyed, there remained uncertainty as to how developed countries would assist the Third World in switching to more costly but environmentally benign chemicals now under development.
Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who convened the conference, pronounced it a success, as did U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly and other delegates.
Several ranking officials predicted that the conference would further efforts to strengthen a key international accord limiting the use of the chemicals when negotiations open next month in Helsinki, Finland. The actual amendments to the accord, however, will not be voted on for another year.
“Finally, the alarm bells are ringing loud enough for the global public and heads of state and government to hear,” Mostafa K. Tolba, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said in a speech closing the conference. “We have affirmed our intention to declare a truce in our assault on the atmosphere.”
The three-day London conference ended after 13 more nations pledged to sign the accord, known as the Montreal Protocol, and another 15 said they would seriously consider joining. If they follow through, countries that account for 92% of the world’s consumption of the chemicals would be parties to the agreement. The 31 nations that have already signed and ratified the document, including the United States, account for 85% of the world’s consumption. The United States alone consumes 32% of the chemicals, known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
CFCs are the chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning, as well as for cleaning electronic components such as computer chips. They are also used in the manufacture of foam products. Another chemical covered by the protocol is halons, widely used as fire-extinguishing agents.
The announcements that additional nations would sign the protocol followed 2 1/2 days of scientific panels and political appeals urging the world’s governments to act quickly to spare the Earth from environmental disaster.
The ozone layer blocks out harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As it thins, scientists have said, there will be increases in skin cancer and cataracts, lower resistance to disease and damage to plants and microscopic marine life at the base of the food chain.
The safer alternatives to CFCs, under development in the United States and Britain, may be several times more expensive. This prospect is particularly disturbing to developing countries, which have limited technological and financial resources.
China, for example, has built 12 CFC plants as it prepares to provide refrigerators for its growing population of 1.2 billion. Less than 10% of Chinese now have refrigerators.
China and India have asked for an international fund financed by developed nations to help them switch to the safer chemicals.
Although both the United States and Britain promised to take such concerns into account, neither country would specifically commit itself at the conference.
But, in his remarks on Tuesday, Tolba of the U.N. Environment Program called for additional funding. He also challenged industry to make the new chemicals available at costs comparable to those charged for CFCs.
“We speak euphemistically of the Third World,” he said. “But what this conference has so dramatically demonstrated is that there is only one world: a world without a common history but facing a common future.”
The conference protocol calls for a reduction in the use and consumption of CFCs by 50% by the turn of the century, although the United States and the 12-nation European Community are calling for a total ban by that time. In addition, the protocol calls for holding halon production at 1986 levels but does not now require additional reductions.
Developing countries are given an added 10 years to meet those targets. In the meantime, they are allowed to increase their per capita consumption as part of their efforts to raise the standard of living. Western per capita consumption is said to be 100 times higher.
In her closing remarks, Thatcher said delegates could be “well satisfied with the work we have done here.”
But, she warned that even if all destructive chemicals were banned tomorrow, it would take 100 years before the ozone layer would be restored to the level of the 1960s. “Such is the extent of the damage we have already done,” she said.
It takes CFCs about 10 years to reach the upper atmosphere, where, depending on their type, they can continue to destroy the ozone layer for 75 to 100 years.
“For centuries, mankind has worked on the assumption that we could pursue the goal of steady progress, without disturbing the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s atmosphere and its living systems,” Thatcher said. “In a very short space of time, that comfortable assumption has been shattered.”
CFCs IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Examples of some products in which chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, may be found worldwide:
Refrigerators, some auto and home air conditioners, production of some foam items such as cups, packaging materials, propellants in some spray cans, insulation, foam-filled furniture, cleaners for computer circuit boards.
Estimated 1986 production, in millions of pounds, of chlorofluorocarbons worldwide
United States: 1,070
Western Europe: 1,100
Asia and Pacific: 550
Eastern Bloc: 250
Latin America: 100
SOURCE: EPA, Du Pont Co.