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Chinese Delegates to Seek Beijing’s Approval for Pact to Protect Ozone : Environment: Move is hailed as a breakthrough at U.N. conference. India’s endorsement is sought.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Chinese diplomats announced Thursday that they will urge their government to join a treaty to protect the Earth’s threatened ozone layer.

The announcement, made during a U.N. conference here on the ozone layer, was hailed as a significant breakthrough. World leaders and scientists, alarmed by the progressive deterioration of the ozone layer because of man-made chemicals, have repeatedly warned that without the participation of China and India, international efforts to reverse ozone depletion could be in vain in the long term.

“It is a major breakthrough,” Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, said of the Chinese announcement. “What I am trying to do now is get India (to sign),” Tolba added.

Liz Cook, of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, an official observer here, called the Chinese announcement heartening. She said the precedents set in the ozone accord may determine the success of future treaties involving the far more complex issue of global warming.

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“Unless developing countries are satisfied with arrangements in the Montreal Protocol, there is little hope for working out a deal to prevent climate change,” she said, referring to the formal name of the international agreement now being revised at the conference.

China, with a population of 1.1 billion, and India with 800 million people, represent 37% of the world’s population and have an enormous potential to help or hurt ozone restoration efforts. Both countries produce ozone-destroying chemicals used in refrigeration and have embarked upon ambitious plans to place millions of refrigerators in homes.

The Chinese delegation’s announcement that it would ask Beijing to “seriously consider acceding” to the protocol was viewed by diplomats here as an unmistakable signal that China intends to sign. Only 14 months ago at the first ozone conference here, China and India declined to join the Montreal Protocol, and instead issued strongly worded appeals for financial aid to help them switch to safer chemical substitutes under development in the West.

Since then, however, industrialized nations already party to the protocol have tentatively agreed to set up an initial $240-million fund for that purpose.

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There have been early indications that China was moving toward joining the global fight to restore the ozone shield. Last summer, it signed the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer. The convention, first approved in March, 1985, sets out broad policy goals related to ozone depletion. But it was not until the Montreal Protocol was completed in 1987 that specific deadlines and obligations were spelled out.

On Thursday, as delegates met behind closed doors for what were described as “intensive” negotiations, agreement appeared near on the fund, as well as on adjustments to the protocol accelerating the phase-out date for ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halons by the year 2000, and perhaps earlier. Currently, the accord calls for a 50% phase-out by that time in industrialized countries.

If the Chinese government heeds its delegation’s advice, India would become the last major developing country yet to signal its intention to sign. On Thursday, India’s environment minister, Maneka Gandhi, again assailed industrialized nations for refusing to meet Third World demands for guarantees that new technologies for manufacturing safer chemical substitutes would be made available to developing nations.

The Chinese, however, while voicing similar concerns, said that enough progress had been made to justify a favorable recommendation to Beijing.

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“On the whole, the Chinese delegation feels that efforts for the past year or so have achieved some results. Therefore, the Chinese government will seriously consider acceding to the Montreal Protocol,” Wang Yangzu, leader of the delegation told reporters.

Later, a member of the delegation said the statement meant the delegation was recommending that China sign the treaty. He said that a period of consultations, as long as six months, within the government would follow.

Another observer close to developments, said that China could draw up to $40 million from the $240-million fund during the next three years and that influenced the delegation’s decision.

“China is short of money,” said the observer.

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Establishment of the fund appeared certain two weeks ago when the Bush Administration withdrew its opposition after appeals by U.S. allies, environmentalists and chemical industry executives.

At the same time, new evidence has continued to mount that synthetic chemical compounds used as coolants, foam-blowing agents, aerosol propellants, cleaning solvents and fire extinguishing agents continue to shred the ozone layer at a frightening pace.

It is estimated that if an immediate ban on all such chemicals were imposed, it would take more than a decade to stabilize the erosion, and far into the next century before ozone concentrations returned to pre-industrial levels.

Earlier in the day, Gandhi told reporters that she spoke for both India and China in voicing concern about what they see as shortcomings in negotiations. But, the Chinese announcement is expected to put additional pressure on India to join the pact.

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Gandhi, daughter-in-law of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, said Thursday she remains “optimistic” that differences can be resolved.

But, in a press conference held only minutes after China’s session ended, she accused industrialized countries of attempting to force upon developing nations a deadline for switching to ozone-friendly chemicals while offering no guarantees that the technology to allow them to produce the new substitutes themselves will be made available.

She said buying the finished product would be unacceptable. “We have a problem turning into a client state,” she said.

At another point, she said, “I have an industry to protect.” India produces less than 10,000 metric tons of CFCs a year now, but by the year 2015 could be turning out as much as 200,000 metric tons a year, according to a new study.

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Asked by a British reporter if she were willing to “destroy” the ozone layer so that her people could enjoy refrigerators, Gandhi replied, “We didn’t destroy the layer. You did.

“I’m saying that you (the West) have the capability and the money to restore what you have destroyed. If you think that I can go into a middle class home in my country and say, ‘Chuck out your ‘fridge because somebody in America destroyed the ozone layer,’ then I’m not going to be able to do that.”

She said a study estimated that it would cost India more than $600 million to completely phase out ozone-destroying substances.

The ozone layer, located about 15 miles high, filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin cancer, cataracts and suppress immune systems in humans. Scientists believe the radiation may also reduce crops and kill fish larvae and the plankton that is essential to the marine food chain.

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