When a truck pulls through customs and immigration carrying what appears to be innocuous oil drums for cross-border trade, a closer check might uncover something insidious and worse, disastrous - CFCs.
This is because CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons is a major ozone depleting substance, ODS in short, that’s still used in refrigerators and air-conditioning units in millions of homes and companies in Asia Pacific, in particular South Asia and Southeast Asia.
The ozone layer in Earth’s stratosphere provides the much needed shield from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, which would otherwise be too hot for comfort, affecting health and the environment. Known effects are skin cancers, cataracts, weakened immune systems, damage to terrestrial plant life and aquatic eco-systems.
China, India and South Korea alone account for around 70% of global CFC production. A study on transboundary movement in ODS by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) uncovered an alarming trend of illegal trade in CFCs through large discrepancies in official import and export figures between trading countries.
Analyzing the trade data of CFCs between key importing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Iran and key exporting countries like China, India and Singapore in 2004 found more than 4,000 tonnes of CFCs unaccounted for in the importing countries.
Simply put, there are not official records of these missing items. “CFC is the second biggest goods to be smuggled after drugs,” said UNEP’s Thanavat Junchaya in Singapore at the Federation of Environment Journalists meeting held alongside the UNEP Business for Environment Summit in April 2008.
The main routes used by smugglers are: India/China-Vietnam-Laos/Cambodia-Thailand, Bangladesh-India, Nepal-India, China-Philippines, China-Malaysia, China-Indonesia, Singapore-Malaysia, Malaysia-Thailand.
ODS Smuggling Motivations
Many reasons account for the continuance of illegal trade. Long lifespan of equipment using CFCs, high demand for CFCs in the servicing sector, import of used refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment and the high cost of substitutes are to blame.
Smugglers, when caught, often get away with paltry penalties, only to return callously to repeat their crimes. To them the lucrative price of CFC on the international black market is just too attractive as the world faces reduced legal supply.
Stamping out ODS
Leaders of around 190 countries have signed an international agreement to progressively phase out production and consumption of ODS. The Montreal Protocol since 1987 has reduced total consumption of CFCs from 1.1 million ozone depletion potential tonnes in 1986 to around 34,799 tonnes in 2006 – or more than 95% reduction. Without the Protocol, this would reach 3 million tonnes in 2010.
This, it said, translates to saving mankind from nearly 19 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer, $238,000 million fishery industry loss and $191,000 million agricultural production damage.
Full compliance with the Montreal Protocol will eliminate most of the ozone-depleting substance by 2030, including HCFCs or hydrochlorofluorocarbons which is a less damaging ODS compared to CFC and is currently used in 60-80% of refrigeration and air-conditioning units.
However, without vigilant monitoring of this illegal activity and lack of enforcement, the production and consumption of ODS will continue. A number of initiatives are in place (see list below) to tackle this. Yet, the collective muscle to arrest this criminal activity is lacklustre. “ODS contributes to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions where fossil fuel emits 60%, so ODS issues have not exactly been on the priority list of countries,” revealed Thanavat.
Singapore, a party to the Montreal Protocol since 1985, has phased out the use of CFCs and halons in 1996 and is cutting out the use of HCFCs by 2030. In 2007, the NEA prosecuted two companies for importing CFCs without valid licences. The penalty for the offence is a fine not exceeding $50,000, or a jail term not exceeding two years, or both.
To close the loop on persistent illegal activities, the Singapore National Environment Agency (NEA) has worked with regional countries to implement the Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure for all import and export of CFCs in 2006. Under this PIC procedure, each CFC export application made to NEA would only be approved if the importing country had consented to receive the CFC. To date, NEA has rejected three applications.
There are industry initiatives that present safer alternatives, such as SolarChill that uses direct current (DC) compressor instead of the standard alternating current (AC) compressor used in normal refrigerators, or in other solar cooler. Natural refrigerants are on the rise, used widely by Unilever in ice-cream display boxes.
“Investment into new technologies for substitutes has to be led by bigger companies and there then has to be economies of scale before prices can come down to affordable levels,” said Thanavat.
He also highlighted that there is a hurdle of convincing people to manage the safety of hydrocarbons and ammonia, which are natural refrigerants. Ammonia’s toxicity and flammability in particular concentrations in the air is a cause for concern. Hydrocarbons are high flammable. CO2 has low energy efficiency and very high working pressures in cycles with transcritical parameters.
Brands today that have phased out ODS in Singapore, according to NEA, include Daikin, Carrier, Mitsubishi Electric, MacQuay, Sanyo and Sharp.
Still the problem of ODS use lurks in Asia, and therefore shady underground activity to feed it. If ODS smuggling is not clamped down in these hot zones, a good chunk of greenhouse gas will still be released into the air, blazing a bigger hole in the ozone than the current whopper of 30 million square kilometres. Already up to 60% of total ozone over the Antarctica is burnt out and a new hole, it seems, is forming over the Arctic region.
No wonder Earth has caught a fever. It is high time all refrigeration and air-conditioning manufacturers turned green and for Asian customs officers to peer closer into goods trucks.