Ready To Wreck
Ozone Layer Treaty
20 July 2003
President George Bush is targeting the
international treaty to save the ozone layer which protects all life
on earth from deadly radiation.
New US demands -
tabled at a little-noticed meeting in Montreal earlier this month -
threaten to unravel one of the greatest environmental success stories
of the past few decades, causing millions of deaths from cancer.
The news comes at
a particularly embarrassing time for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair,
who pressed the President in their talks in Washington last week to
stop his attempts to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol which sets out to control
global warming: one of the few international issues on which they differ.
Now, instead of
heeding Mr Blair, Mr Bush is undermining the ozone treaty as well, by
seeking to perpetuate the use of the most ozone-destructive chemical
still employed in developed countries, otherwise soon to be phased out.
Ironically, it was sustained pressure from the Reagan administration,
in which Mr Bush's father served as vice-president, that ensured the
treaty was adopted in the first place. It has proved such a success
that environmentalists have long regarded it as inviolable.
The ozone layer
- made of a type of oxygen so thinly scattered through the upper atmosphere
that, if gathered all together, it would form a ring around the earth
no thicker than the sole of a shoe - screens out the sun's harmful ultraviolet
rays which would, otherwise, wipe out terrestrial life. As it weakens,
more of the rays get through, causing skin cancer and blindness from
The world was shocked
to discover in the 1980s that pollution from man-made chemicals had
opened a hole the size of the United States in the layer above Antarctica,
and had thinned it worldwide. Led by the US, nations moved with unprecedented
speed to agree the treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, in 1987 - which
started the process of phasing out use of the chemicals.
The measures have
been progressively tightened ever since. Scientists reckon that they
will eventually prevent 2 million cases of cancer a year in the US and
Europe alone. But President Bush's new demands threaten to throw the
process into reverse.
They centre on a
pesticide, methyl bromide, now the greatest attacker of ozone left in
industrialised countries. The US is responsible for a quarter of the
world's consumption of the chemical, which has also been linked with
increased prostate cancers in farmers.
Under an extension
to the Montreal Protocol, agreed in 1997, the pesticide is being gradually
phased out and replaced with substitutes; its use in the West is due
to end completely in 2005. Nations are legally allowed to extend the
use of small amounts in "critical" applications, but the US
is demanding exemptions far beyond those permitted, for uses ranging
from growing strawberries to tending golf courses.
It is also pressing
to exploit a loophole in the treaty - allowing the use of the chemical
to treat wood packaging - so that, instead of being phased out, its
use would increase threefold.
The demands now
go to an international conference in Nairobi this autumn. Experts fear
that, if agreed, the treaty will begin to fall apart, not least because
developing countries - which are following rich nations in phasing out
ozone-depleting chemicals - could cease their efforts.
"The US is
reneging on the agreement, and working very, very hard to get other
countries to agree," said David Doniger, a former senior US government
official dealing with ozone issues, who now works for the Natural Resources
Defense Council. "If it succeeds, it threatens to unravel the whole
fabric of the treaty."
Dr Joe Farman, the
Cambridge scientist who discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, added:
"This is madness. We do not need this chemical. We do need the
ozone layer. How stupid can people be?"