The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller [UPDATE: MI6 to monitor Climate Change Treaty]

“We were absolutely gobsmacked to find that Chinese  companies very openly confirmed using CFC-11 while acknowledging it was illegal. The fact that they were so blasé about it, the fact that they told us very openly how pervasive it is in the market, these were shocking findings for us.”

Avipsa Mahapatra — Environmental Investigations Agency

Data from an NOAA study shows that emissions of CFC-11 — as calculated using two different models — rose after 2012, even though production was supposedly phased out.  (NOAA)

May 18 2018 — A real life Dr EVIL is producing thousands of tons of a banned chemical, threatening the recovery of Earth’s badly damaged ozone layer. Scientists believe that industrial amounts of CFC-11 are illegally produced ‘somewhere’ in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps in Eastern Asia since 2012. Notice the irony. Porton Down and OPCW scientists can trace the origin of a few nano-grams of ‘novichok’ to a Russian laboratory in just a few days. But, after 6 years, nobody has identified the production site(s) of thousands of tons of a life-threatening banned chemical. UPDATE (July 9 2018) — The culprits may have been identified; they are probably Chinese foam companies. Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today

RELATED POST: One Year Ago — CIA : “Climatological Research as it Pertains to Intelligence Problems”

RELATED POST: DARPA to Resurrect Top-Secret “PANDORA Project”

RELATED POST: Salisbury Incident — OPCW Corrects Own Director Over Novichok

“Where people sign up to commitments on climate change, it is perhaps our job to make sure that actually what they are really doing reflects what they have signed up to. As somebody used to say – ‘Trust, but verify’. On climate change, where you need everyone to come on board and to play fair, then occasionally just check to make sure they are.”

Richard Moore — Head of MI6

UPDATE (APRIL 28 2021) — As the UK prepares to host the major COP26 climate change summit later this year (Glasgow, Nov. 1-12 2021), Richard Moore said the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) has begun to monitor large industrialized countries in support of what he described as the “foremost international foreign policy agenda item for this country and for the planet”.

Also known as ‘C’, the head of MI6 has revealed that British secret agents have started “green spying” on the world’s biggest polluters to make sure they “play fair” and keep their “climate change promises.”

As the story of this post on illegal CFC from China demonstrates, scientists are perfectly capable to check this kind of Treaty, and it is quite unclear what MI6 agents can possibly bring to this area. Maybe, I miss something?

Anyway… One sentence caught my attention. It is not obvious that Mr. Moore actually knows the origin of: “Trust, but verify!”

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Senator Ted Cruz, and general Colin Powell all used this phrase on multiple occasions – and each time they all attributed it to Ronald Reagan.

“Trust, but verify!” is actually a old Russian proverb. [Russian: Доверяй, но проверяй, tr. Doveryay, no proveryay]

Reagan learned this proverb from Suzanne Massie, one of his advisers on Russia’s affairs, when he was preparing for talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

After hearing the proverb from Reagan, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, saying that “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

The origin of the proverb is unknown but can be dated to the late 19th or early 20th century.

Vladimir Lenin voiced a version of the idea in his 1914 speech: “Do not take their word for it, check it strictly – this is the slogan of the Marxist workers!”

Joseph Stalin repeated Lenin’s idea years later: “A healthy distrust is a good basis for working together.”

PS — On July 24, 2020, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo referenced the proverb in a speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library saying that in dealing with China, the freedom-loving nations of the world must instead ‘distrust and verify’. For sure, Pompeo and Nixon could write an anthology on this subject…


“We were there to catch the problem, and now we can be there to announce that they have addressed it. It’s a nice thing.”

Stephen Montzka — Atmospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado

UPDATE (February 16 2021) — In a pair of studies published in Nature on February 10 2021, scientists report that atmospheric concentrations of CFC-11 have dropped precipitously since 2018.

China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not reply to several requests for comment.

The analysis published this week, using data from two independent global air-monitoring networks, indicates that concentrations of CFC-11 began to decline more rapidly in 2018. By late 2019, CFC-11 concentrations were dropping by around 1% a year — the fastest pace on record.

In a second paper, Montzka and colleagues used measurements from air-monitoring stations in South Korea and Japan, as well as detailed atmospheric-transport modelling, to show that the largest source of the rogue emissions — in eastern China — has been shut down. 

Atmospheric scientists believe that China was responsible for the bulk of these illegal emissions. According to their research, “Around 60% of the global increase came from that region, and 60% of the recent decrease also came from there.”

However, the sources of illegal emissions outside China remain a mystery. They still don’t know where the other 40% was coming from. And they may never find out…


“The treaty did its job. Whoever the offending parties were — including most definitely China — they got their act together.”

Durwood Zaelke — President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

According to a study, published in Nature on Wednesday (May 16 2018), the atmospheric level of trichlorofluoromethane — also known as CFC-11 — is not declining as quickly as expected.

Scientists with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe that someone is producing tons of CFC-11, a ozone-depleting chemical banned by the Montreal Protocol. The Treaty was agreed on 16 September 1987, and entered into force on 1 January 1989.

“A simple model analysis of our findings suggests an increase in CFC-11 emissions of 13 ± 5 giga-grams per year (25 ± 13 per cent) since 2012, despite reported production being close to zero since 2006. “

The illicit emissions are probably coming from ‘somewhere in Eastern Asia’, but nothing else is known about the offender.

Based on an analysis of measurements from 12 different sites, the scientists concluded that CFC-11 emissions started to increase after 2012.

The U.N. Ozone Secretariat says it is critical to “identify the causes of these emissions and take necessary action.”

“It is important to note that these findings also highlight the efficacy of the Montreal Protocol, its institutions and mechanisms, with science at their core.

So long as scientists remain vigilant, new production or emission of ozone-depleting chemicals will not go unnoticed.”

“It appears that emissions of CFC-11 have increased in recent years, which is quite a surprise given the fact that production has been phased out — reportedly.  I think it’s the most surprising thing I’ve seen in my 27 years of making measurements of trace gases in the atmosphere.”

Stephen Montzka — NOAA scientist 

Emissions of ozone-eating chemical rising

UPDATE (July 9 2018) — Cheap Chinese home insulation material made mostly for domestic purpose is mostly — perhaps entirely — responsible for the rise.

The Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) found widespread use of CFC-11 in China, even though the chemical was fully banned back in 2010.

Experts had feared that the rise was the clue of a secret nuclear bombs project [Uranium enrichment plant]. The truth is less dramatic but no less disturbing.

“CFC-11 makes a very efficient ‘blowing agent’ for polyurethane foam, helping it to expand into rigid thermal insulation that’s used in houses to cut energy bills and reduce carbon emissions.

Researchers from the EIA, a green campaign group, contacted foam manufacturing factories in 10 different provinces across China. From their detailed discussions with executives in 18 companies, the investigators concluded that the chemical is used in the majority of the polyurethane insulation the firms produce.

One seller of CFC-11 estimated that 70% of China’s domestic sales used the illegal gas. The reason is quite simple – CFC-11 is better quality and much cheaper than the alternatives.”

Dr Stephen Montzka from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told BBC News:

“The pervasiveness of the use of CFC-11 that seems apparent in China based on their survey is quite amazing, although it is hard for me to assess the accuracy of the emission estimate they make to know if it is indeed likely that this activity can explain all or most of what we are observing in the global atmosphere.”

EIA’s calculations show that emission estimates associated with the level of use reported by these Chinese companies explain the majority of these no longer mysterious CFC emissions.

UPDATE (May 23 2019) — A new report, published in the prestigious journal Nature, concludes that Industries in north-eastern China have released about 7,000 tonnes of the Chlorofluorocarbon-11 (CFC-11), into the atmosphere in violation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

An international team of atmospheric scientists gathered additional data from monitoring stations in Japan and Taiwan. Their measurements showed ‘spikes’ in pollution when air arrived from industrialised areas in north-eastern China.

“We show that emissions from eastern mainland China are 7.0 ± 3.0 (±1 standard deviation) gigagrams per year higher in 2014–2017 than in 2008–2012, and that the increase in emissions arises primarily around the northeastern provinces of Shandong and Hebei. This increase accounts for a substantial fraction (at least 40 to 60 per cent) of the global rise in CFC-11 emissions. We find no evidence for a significant increase in CFC-11 emissions from any other eastern Asian countries or other regions of the world where there are available data for the detection of regional emissions.”

When CFCs break down in the atmosphere, they release chlorine atoms that are able to rapidly destroy the ozone layer which protects us from ultraviolet light. A gaping hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was discovered in the mid 1980s.

CFCs are also very potent greenhouse gases. One tonne of CFC-11 is equivalent to around 5,000 tonnes of CO2.

The 7,000 tonnes of CFC emitted by the Chinese factories equate to about 35 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere every year. This is about 4 times the annual CO2 emissions of Luxembourg and one third of Belgium emissions.

PS: I would like to point out that it took one year for an international team of scientists to pinpoint the source of the emission of 7,000 tonnes  of a banned chemical.

Yet, according to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the British Intelligence Services were able to identify in 48 hours the Russian laboratory having produced a few nano-grams of the Novichok allegedly used in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter.


NOAA finds rising emissions of ozone-destroying chemical banned by Montreal Protocol — University of Colorado at Boulder

Ozone hole mystery: China insulating chemical said to be source of rise — BBC News (July 9 2018)


The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller

The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller [UPDATE: Shame on China]

The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller [UPDATE: China factories releasing thousands of tonnes of illegal CFC gases]

The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller [UPDATE: Illegal CFC emissions from China have stopped]

The Rise of the CFC — An Atmospheric Spy Thriller [UPDATE: MI6 to monitor Climate Change Treaty]

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