A greenhouse gas 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide and generated mainly in China and India is being released at record levels, a new study claims.
The study led by the University of Bristol contradicts reports that the gas, called HFC-23, was almost eliminated from the atmosphere in 2017.
It has few industrial applications but is vented into the atmosphere during the creation of a chemical ‘widely used in cooling systems’ in developing countries.
Starting in 2015 India and China announced ambitious plans to end emissions in factories of the gas and in 2017 said they’d succeeded.
This study, looking at the amount of HFC-23 in the atmosphere globally found that not only had it not been removed, but that levels had significantly increased.
Scientists were expecting to see global emissions drop by almost 90 percent between 2015 and 2017 as a result of the India and China claims.
It is a particularly potent gas, with one tonne of its emissions equal to the release of more than 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, study authors say.
WHAT IS HFC-23?
It is one of the haloform class of compounds and is used in a range of applications.
It doesn’t deplete the ozone so has been used to replace gasses that do, but it is a greenhouse gas.
In fact every tonne of HFC-23 emissions is equal to about 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The gas is a chemical compound produced as a by-product of other chemicals, particularly in cooling technologies.
It is used as a refrigerant and a fire suppressant due to its low toxicity and low reactivity.
Over the last two decades, scientists have been keeping a close eye on the atmospheric concentration of a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gas due to its potency.
‘When we saw the reports of enormous emissions reductions from India and China, we were excited to take a close look at the data’, said Dr Matt Rigby, co-author.
‘This potent greenhouse gas has been growing rapidly in the atmosphere for decades now, and these reports suggested that the rise should have almost completely stopped in the space of two or three years.
‘This would have been a big win for climate.’
The fact that this reduction has not materialised, and that, instead, global emissions have actually risen, is a puzzle, he said.
In 2016 an amendment to the Montreal Protocol aimed to reduce the climate impact of HFCs whose emissions have grown due to them being used as replacement for ozone depleting substances.
Dr Kieran Stanley, the lead author of the study, said to be complaint with the ammendment countries who ratified the agreement had to destroy HFC-23 as far as possible before it enters the atmosphere.
‘Although China and India are not yet bound by the Amendment, their reported abatement would have put them on course to be consistent with it. However, it looks like there is still work to do’, Dr Stanley said.
‘Our study finds that it is very likely that China has not been as successful in reducing HFC-23 emissions as reported.
‘However, without additional measurements, we can’t be sure whether India has been able to implement its abatement programme.’
In 2016 an amendment to the Montreal Protocol aimed to reduce the climate impact of HFCs whose emissions have grown due to them being used as replacement for ozone depleting substances
Had the emissions reductions been as large as reported, the researchers estimate that the equivalent of a whole year of Spain’s CO2 emissions could have been avoided between 2015 and 2017.
‘The magnitude of the CO2-equivalent emissions shows just how potent this greenhouse gas is’, said Dr Rigby.
‘We now hope to work with other international groups to better quantify India and China’s individual emissions using regional, rather than global, data and models.’
Previous studies found that HFC-23 emissions declined between 2005 and 2010 as developed countries paid to remove it from developing countries factories.
The payment involved purchasing credits from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Clean Development Mechanism.
“In that case, the atmospheric data showed that emissions reductions matched the reports very well,’ said Dr Stanley.
However, the scheme was controversial as it was thought to create a perverse incentive for manufacturers to increase the amount of waste gas they generated in order to sell more credits.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.
WHAT IS AIR POLLUTION?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process.
It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production.
The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm.
CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans.
The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.
Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.
SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
What is particulate matter?
Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air.
Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.
Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).
Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture
Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.
Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.
Why are particulates dangerous?
Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads.
What sort of health problems can pollution cause?
According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution.
Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes.
As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution.
Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer.
Deaths from pollution
Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems.
Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed.
Problems in pregnancy
Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.
Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.
For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds.
Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’.
What is being done to tackle air pollution?
Paris agreement on climate change
The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change.
It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.
Carbon neutral by 2050
The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.
They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.
Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.
International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.
No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040
In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.
From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.
However, MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.
The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.
Norway’s electric car subsidies
The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.
A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient.
Criticisms of inaction on climate change
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change.
The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.
The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.
It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall.