December 4, 1999

Environment Conference Agrees to Help Poor Nations Protect Ozone


BEIJING -- An environmental conference of 129 countries here has agreed to provide an additional $440 million over the next three years to help poor countries stop using chemicals that harm the protective layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere.

Under an environmental treaty signed in 1987 in Montreal, richer countries have drastically curbed their use of substances that deplete the ozone shield, especially chlorofluorocarbons used in air-conditioners and refrigerators.

Halting the production and use of such chemicals by 2010 in developing countries like Brazil, China and India is the next step under the treaty. Since 1991, $1 billion has been provided to begin switching to safer alternatives, with the United States providing one-fourth of that sum.

"Significant progress has been achieved in the last 10 years," said Shafqat Kakakhel, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, at a news conference Thursday. "The developed countries have almost completely phased out ozone-destroying chemicals. Now it's time for the developing countries."

Ozone in the stratosphere is essential to life on earth, blocking out ultraviolet rays that can harm health. The 1987 treaty was based on scientific predictions, born out by the appearance of a huge ozone "hole" over the Antarctic each spring, that manufactured chemicals were dangerously thinning the protective layer.

Officials of the United Nations and the United States said this week's commitment of new funds would keep the treaty on track. But environmental groups expressed disappointment that more money was not promised and that stronger steps were not adopted to speed up progress.

Because some chemicals keep wreaking damage for decades, the ozone thinning has continued in the 1990s, even as total use of major ozone destroyers has declined 85 percent. The Antarctica hole has widened, serious reductions have occurred over the Arctic, and detectable thinning has appeared over Europe and North America.

This week, the European Space Agency reported unexpectedly low concentrations of ozone over northwestern Europe, with declines of as much as one-third from normal in some places.

Scientific panels have predicted that under the treaty the ozone layer would start healing in a few years and would be largely replenished in 50 years.

Still, international officials and environmental groups have raised several concerns.

One is new scientific evidence that a different atmospheric problem, global warming because of the buildup of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases may slow recovery of the ozone layer.

Environmental groups were angered by the failure of the meeting here to further strengthen the counterattack. One proposal offered by Europe was to develop an automatic mechanism for quickly regulating newly discovered chemical threats.

The United States would agree only to study the issue, arguing that Senate ratification might be needed before new substances could be controlled.

Officials at the meeting also expressed concern about the continued sale of products with chlorofluorocarbons-containing from developed countries, where they are now illegal, to less developed countries, and the smuggling of products outlawed under the treaty.

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