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The Dilemma of the Ozone Hole and Climate Change

Scientists hope by 2005 to launch alternatives to two chemicals used as replacements for ozone-depleting CFC gases but which themselves contribute to climate change.

RIO DE JANEIRO - The hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) and perfluorocarbon (PFC) gases might not hurt the atmosphere's ozone layer, but they contribute to global warming. A group of 120 scientists is studying this dilemma and hopes to present alternatives in 2005.

HFCs and PFCs are used as substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are the leading culprit in destroying the ozone layer, and are still widely used in some countries in refrigerators and air conditioners in homes, cars, businesses and industry.

CFC replacement was stipulated in the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1987 aimed at preserving the weakened ozone layer, which at 20 to 30 km altitude filters out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

Many countries have more than complied with the commitments made under the treaty. In some rich countries CFCs were phased out even before the 2001 deadline set for the industrialized world. Brazil hopes to achieve the mark by 2007, though developing countries have until 2010.

But the CFC substitutes, HFCs and PFCs, also have their downside. They are greenhouse gases, meaning they contribute to trapping the sun's warmth in the atmosphere, which leads to climate change.

Both are included on the list of substances to be controlled under the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, a treaty that has not yet entered into force.

The global scientific community has stepped up studies in the past decade of the correlation between the thinning of the ozone layer and climate change.

One of the greatest challenges is how the production and utilization of gases that, like the CFCs themselves, exacerbate both of these environmental phenomena.

To confront the challenge, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) invited its counterpart, the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) to a meeting in The Hague.

There, they formed the group of 120 experts, who have until the first part of 2005 to draw up a report evaluating the alternatives with regard to the ozone layer and climate change.

It will be an analysis of the "complete cycle of the gases, their direct and indirect effects" on climate and ozone, scientist Roberto Peixoto, a Brazilian participating in the process, told Tierramérica.

The criteria are not linear, but rather take into account the entire system. A gas that is better as a refrigerant will not be recommended if its production requires more energy generated by greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels, explained Peixoto, who is also assistant director of the Mauá Technology Institute in Sao Paulo.

The final results of the entire cycle could be negative.

Also in play are economic and technological factors, the interests of the industries producing the gases and the equipment involved, as well as ecological questions and national and local limitations, noted the expert.

"We must consider cases in which a harmful gas is indispensable, and then reinforce responsible use, preventing leaks and emissions," he said.

In Europe, and in Germany in particular, it has been found that isobutane is an effective alternative for household refrigerators, but its use is limited to appliances in which a small quantity of this flammable gas does not present risks, Peixoto added.

It is "an alternative to be considered, but which requires heavy investment in safety," says environmental expert Paulo Vodianitskaia, of Multibrás company, Latin America's leading manufacturer of home appliances and a subsidiary of the U.S. transnational Whirlpool.

A Brazilian company ended up bankrupt by following the European's lead, adopting isobutane and cyclopentane in its industrial production.

In this case the safety expenses proved fatal to the business because they were not covered by the Montreal Protocol's Multilateral Fund, aimed at promoting eco-friendly industrial conversion in poor countries, says Liamarcia Silva Hora, technical adviser to Brazil's Environment Ministry.

"We must adapt the alternatives to the local economic reality," she said.

Brazil banned the production of CFC-based refrigerators in 1999. Two years later, consumption of CFCs and other similar gases has fallen more than 40 percent.

But this South American giant still has 36 million refrigerators in use that were manufactured before 1999 and contain CFCs.

In order to eliminate the use of this gas in Brazil by 2007, the government announced on Sep. 16, International Ozone Day, that it will seek 26.7 million dollars from the Multilateral Fund to distribute 12,000 CFC recovery teams, build 10 refrigerant recycling centers and train 35,000 technicians.

Brazil is the third largest consumer of these gases among developing countries, surpassed only by China and India.

The substitute for CFCs is principally HFC, as a refrigerant in household appliances and air conditioners.

But the greenhouse effect of HFC is 1,300 times greater than that of a similar quantity of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels, ecologist Sergio Dialetachi, the energy campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Brazil, told Tierramérica.

But Multibrás's Vodianitskaia points out that the limited emissions of HFC represent just two percent of the total greenhouse effect.

CFCs began to be used 70 years ago, but their harmful effects on the atmospheric ozone layer only became evident 30 or 40 years later.

The ozone hole -- really a thinning of the ozone layer -- is a cyclical phenomenon occurring in the Southern Hemisphere spring season. This year it has reached a record size of 28 million square km, the World Meteorological Organization announced last week.

* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.


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