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Backdoor ban

Science | Protocol on ozone depletion may block a chemical that doesn't deplete ozone

Issue: "Biblical callings," Dec. 4, 2010

Some environmentalists expect the December UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, to be as fruitless as last year's rally to produce a global climate treaty in Copenhagen. So they're placing their hopes on a different treaty, the Montreal Protocol, adopted in 1987 to cut back the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. Unlike many CO2-reduction schemes, the Protocol has been enormously effective. In 2009 it became the only UN treaty to be ratified by every recognized nation in the world, and it has propelled the ongoing industrial phaseout of such ozone-destroying chemicals as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their alternatives, HCFCs.

At a November meeting of Protocol members, some nations proposed phasing out HFCs, a third class of chemicals ubiquitous in car air conditioners and supermarket cooling systems, but up to 11,700 times more potent than CO2 as greenhouse gases. The proposal would only be binding on signatories that agree to it: Nations like China and India want more time and financial incentives to replace the chemicals, but the Obama administration supports the measure. Industries would need to pay for alternative refrigerants, and the treaty terms could cost up to $15 billion over 30 years-yet that's only a fraction of what the proposals in Cancun could cost.

Here's the kicker: HFCs don't deplete ozone. Mario Molina, one of the original scientists whose study of CFCs led to the Protocol, admitted using the ozone treaty for the purpose of combating global warming was "a stretch." But with a carbon climate treaty on the rocks, it's a backdoor option that just might come in.

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Powering down

The federally approved organization that governs electric grid reliability warned of unreliability in a new report: The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) said proposed pollution regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency could significantly affect the U.S. electricity supply. The EPA rules, which would require retrofitted upgrades to cooling water systems and air pollution controls at power plants, could force a loss of as much as 77 gigawatts of power capacity in 2015-equal to 7 percent of the nation's power supply. Much of the loss would come through the closure of power plants, with smaller, coal-fired plants affected most sharply.

The EPA quickly criticized the NERC report as "fortune-telling" that focused on "worst-case scenarios." The power industry could spend $150 billion over the next decade to comply with the proposed rules. The report's assessment didn't include the EPA's possible future regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.

Panel push

The UN continues its push for expensive environmental treaties. Delegates from nearly 200 nations met in Nagoya, Japan, in late October to work out a new conservation policy for the Convention on Biological Diversity. They emerged with a proposal similar to the UN's approach to global warming: Developed nations would subsidize the preservation of animal and plant resources and even pay royalties for "genetic resources." (This could take the form of a biodiversity funding tax on, for instance, a Western pharmaceutical drug made from a rare plant in an undeveloped country.) Delegates also encouraged the creation of the "Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services." Like the scandal-plagued Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPBES would write expansive reports aimed at influencing governmental policymakers. The United States has not ratified the Convention.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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