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Heat cheats

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Lava flows on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, where global emissions data is collected Lava flows on Mauna Loa, Hawaii, where global emissions data is collected alohaisland
09 Jul
Well-meaning promises and actions don't always have the best outcomes. Marco Magrini finds that paradoxes abound despite the best intentions

Somebody is playing with the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty that banned ozone-layer damaging chlorofluorocarbons. Scientists have revealed that atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11, one of the forbidden molecules, have inexplicably risen in recent times. Somebody, somewhere in Asia they say, has been cheating with the numbers.

In environmental and climatic matters, cheating is not unheard of. Industrial and financial corporations, as well as hackers and states, have often taken advantage of the Emissions Trading System, the European carbon market born after the Kyoto Protocol. In a couple of cases, scientists have been caught doctoring a few numbers, not to mention climate-denying lobbies that juggle fake data and misinformation all the time.

How easy is it to cheat on emissions? It’s a question that gets serious when we recall that the Paris Agreement on climate change is fundamentally based on trust. Countries have to voluntarily set emission reduction goals that are not legally binding and periodically report on them. Verification frameworks are to be established in the future but, needless to say, they will face hard times.

Tracking down the CFC-cheating culprits proved tricky, more so for possible CO2 fraudsters. Planet Earth, with its lands and oceans, is enormous. But just think of the sky. If we take the upper limits of the stratosphere (where CO2, CFC and ozone reside) we get 31 miles of continuous layers of gases, each one bigger than the Earth’s surface. There are no borders up there, neither customs nor controls. The molecules roaming around carry no passports. Carbon dioxide concentrations, which were around 280ppm (parts per million) before the Industrial Revolution, are now at 410ppm. It may sound trivial, but it makes a big climatic difference. The unforeseen increase in CFC-11 (which also happens to be a greenhouse gas) could be the cause of the recorded slowing in ozone layer recovery. They are both grave troubles.

eiaEIA Global

Now, a new investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reveals that it is the Chinese construction industry – specifically the foam insulation sector – which has at fault for the new emission leaks. 

Since the 1950s, all these emission data have been collected in Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Why? Because there’s no urban pollution there (volcanoes notwithstanding) and gassy molecules tend to spread all over the globe, so it is the perfect spot to take air samples. But that’s also why it is so hard to enforce environmental treaties. And why there will always be emission swindlers who keep on playing with our planet’s fragile equilibrium.

This was published in the July 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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