Several Chinese factories have been found to be in direct violation of an international agreement by unleashing large amounts of ozone-destroying gas into the atmosphere.

In an article featured in the journal Nature, an international team of scientists discovered evidence that point to some industries in north-eastern China releasing Chlorofluorocarbon-11 into the Earth's atmosphere.

World governments have long considered CFC-11 as a banned substance because of its potential to rapidly deplete the ozone layer, which helps protect the planet from ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The chemical has been prohibited under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

However, the researchers found that CFC-11 levels in the Chinese region have increased by as much as 7,000 tons per year since 2013.

Environment experts are concerned that such high levels of carbon emissions could exacerbate the deterioration of the ozone, which has already shown signs of recovery after decades of damaging. These could also worsen the impact of climate change on global temperatures.

What Are CFCs?

Chlorofluorocarbons first came into existence during the 1920s. Chemists used compounds such as ammonia, chloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide as primary agents for refrigeration and air conditioning systems.

While these compounds proved to be effective refrigerants, they were highly toxic and flammable. Exposure to the substances could also result in serious injury or even death.

Thomas Midgely Jr., a researcher for home appliances maker Frigidaire, helped develop an alternative to refrigerants that was nontoxic and nonflammable. What he and his team came up with was the compound dichlorodifluoromethane (CCl2F2), which was later named "Freon."

However, manufacturers continued to use CFCs as refrigerants on a wide scale. In fact, CFC production around the world reached nearly 1 million tons per year by the 1970s. It helped brought in $500 million to the chemical industry.

Researchers later discovered that all of the chlorofluorocarbons produced over the years stayed in the Earth's atmosphere instead of dissipating.

F. Sherwood Rowland, a professor of chemistry at the University of California, Irvine, and Mario J. Molina, postdoctoral fellow in Rowland's laboratory, described how UV radiation breaks down the chlorine atoms in CFCs that end up in the stratosphere.

When these atoms interact even with an ozone molecule, they would set off a chain reaction that could destroy other ozone molecules in the atmosphere.

Rowland and Molina estimates that ozone loss would continue for years even if CFC use was banned. However, the destruction of the ozone would be even greater if production of the compound did not stop immediately.

"When we realized there was a very effective chain reaction, that changed the CFC investigation from an interesting scientific problem to one that had major environmental consequences," Rowland said.

"You don't often get many chills down your back when you look at scientific results."

How To Help Mitigate The Impact Of CFCs

In 2018, nonprofit research group Drawdown released a list of 100 solutions for climate change, each one ranked according to their potential impacts. The one that topped its list was refrigerant management.

The group believes proper disposal of old refrigerants, instead of just allowing them to leak into the air, would help prevent as much as 90 gigatons of carbon dioxide from getting to the atmosphere. This is equivalent to more than 17 years' worth of CO2 emissions in the United States.

Chad Frishmann, research director at Drawdown, considers the move as an "incredibly important solution" for climate change.

In an article by the National Geographic, CFCs can be disposed of by incinerating them in specially designed kilns. This would allow the harmful chlorine atoms within the compounds to be broken down and turned into a benign mixture.

To help promote the proper disposal of CFCs, some organizations have devised ways on how to turn the venture into something profitable.

Tradewater, a company dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has developed a business model where initiatives are converted into carbon offset credits and then sold in carbon markets.

These offset credits are often used by large corporations, such as Microsoft and Sky media company, to help fuel their sustainability goals. The money that these companies funnel into carbon markets are then used to fund efforts to cut carbon emissions around the world.

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