Independent: Bush ready to wreck ozone layer treaty
- Bush ready to wreck ozone layer treaty
US slips in demand to drop ban on harmful pesticide
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor
20 July 2003
President George Bush is targeting the international treaty to save the
ozone layer which protects all life on earth from deadly radiation, The
Independent on Sunday can reveal.
New US demands - tabled at a little-noticed meeting in Montreal earlier this
month - threaten to unravel one of the greatest environmental success
stories of the past few decades, causing millions of deaths from cancer.
The news comes at a particularly embarrassing time for the Prime Minister,
Tony Blair, who pressed the President in their talks in Washington last week
to stop his attempts to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol which sets out to
control global warming: one of the few international issues on which they
Now, instead of heeding Mr Blair, Mr Bush is undermining the ozone treaty as
well, by seeking to perpetuate the use of the most ozone-destructive
chemical still employed in developed countries, otherwise soon to be phased
out. Ironically, it was sustained pressure from the Reagan administration,
in which Mr Bush's father served as vice-president, that ensured the treaty
was adopted in the first place. It has proved such a success that
environmentalists have long regarded it as inviolable.
The ozone layer - made of a type of oxygen so thinly scattered through the
upper atmosphere that, if gathered all together, it would form a ring around
the earth no thicker than the sole of a shoe - screens out the sun's harmful
ultraviolet rays which would, otherwise, wipe out terrestrial life. As it
weakens, more of the rays get through, causing skin cancer and blindness
The world was shocked to discover in the 1980s that pollution from man-made
chemicals had opened a hole the size of the United States in the layer above
Antarctica, and had thinned it worldwide. Led by the US, nations moved with
unprecedented speed to agree the treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, in
1987 - which started the process of phasing out use of the chemicals.
The measures have been progressively tightened ever since. Scientists reckon
that they will eventually prevent 2 million cases of cancer a year in the US
and Europe alone. But President Bush's new demands threaten to throw the
process into reverse.
They centre on a pesticide, methyl bromide, now the greatest attacker of
ozone left in industrialised countries. The US is responsible for a quarter
of the world's consumption of the chemical, which has also been linked with
increased prostate cancers in farmers.
Under an extension to the Montreal Protocol, agreed in 1997, the pesticide
is being gradually phased out and replaced with substitutes; its use in the
West is due to end completely in 2005. Nations are legally allowed to extend
the use of small amounts in "critical" applications, but the US is demanding
exemptions far beyond those permitted, for uses ranging from growing
strawberries to tending golf courses.
It is also pressing to exploit a loophole in the treaty - allowing the use
of the chemical to treat wood packaging - so that, instead of being phased
out, its use would increase threefold.
The demands now go to an international conference in Nairobi this autumn.
Experts fear that, if agreed, the treaty will begin to fall apart, not least
because developing countries - which are following rich nations in phasing
out ozone-depleting chemicals - could cease their efforts.
"The US is reneging on the agreement, and working very, very hard to get
other countries to agree," said David Doniger, a former senior US government
official dealing with ozone issues, who now works for the Natural Resources
Defense Council. "If it succeeds, it threatens to unravel the whole fabric
of the treaty."
Dr Joe Farman, the Cambridge scientist who discovered the Antarctic ozone
hole, added: "This is madness. We do not need this chemical. We do need the
ozone layer. How stupid can people be?"