(CN) – Factories in China will weaken the ozone layer over the next century if left unchecked – undoing the global effort to roll back the use of harmful ozone-eating chemicals, according to a study released Thursday.
In 1987, damage to the ozone layer was addressed by the Montreal Protocol, a global agreement in which nations sought to phase out the use and manufacture of harmful substances that deplete the ozone and expose the planet to harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
This year, the United Nations reported the ozone was slowly recovering and would be completely restored by around the middle of the century. But a new study published Thursday in Nature Geoscience finds manufacturing in eastern China accounted for a rise in global chloroform emissions from 2010 to 2015.
If those levels continue to climb through 2050 any hopes to restore the ozone layer would be delayed by several years, report the authors of the study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Chloroform is a colorless, sweet-smelling chemical compound used to produce a nonstick substance sprayed on kitchen utensils as well as certain refrigerants. But since chloroform is classified as a “short-lived” substance that only stays in the atmosphere for about five months, it wasn’t specifically addressed by the Montreal Protocol.
But now these short-lived chemicals threaten to weaken the ozone and will likely push back any full recovery by four to eight years, according to researchers.
Xuekun Fang, a postdoctoral researcher and one of the study’s authors, said almost all global increases stem from China.
The researchers posit that any ozone depletion in that region of the world will create an urgent situation in East Asia, because its monsoons, typhoons and other extreme storms could give short-lived compounds like chloroform a boost into the stratosphere where they will then eat away at the ozone.
Study co-author Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, said there’s an unfortunate balance where chloroform emissions are being emitted and where frequent storms can puncture the troposphere.
"A bigger fraction of what's released in East Asia gets into the stratosphere than in other parts of the world,” said Prinn.
He added that now is the time to regulate chloroform before more uses for the compound are found and production increases.
Prinn added, “For chloroform, people will surely find additional uses for it."
The research was supported by NASA, the National Institute of Environmental Studies in Japan, the National Research Foundation of Korea, the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia, and other organizations.