Banned ozone-destroying gas may still be in production

The loss of ozone is weakening protection from UV rays on the planet and CFC-11 is also a powerful greenhouse gas causing global warming

The report also points out that there are alternatives to CFC-11 which are easy to come by and safer to use, so there is no real-world reason to continue using it, making the case all the more perplexing. This was partly because nations had all agreed to ban or phase out CFCs, which are short for "chlorofluorocarbons" but are simply called "ozone-depleting substances", due to an worldwide treaty back in the 1980s called the Montreal Protocol.

"We're raising a flag to the global community to say, 'This is what's going on, and it is taking us away from timely recovery of the ozone layer, '" said Montzka.

"The increase in emission of CFC-11 appears unrelated to past production", the authors note.

"These considerations suggest that the increased CFC-11 emissions arise from new production not reported to UNEP's Ozone Secretariat, which is inconsistent with the agreed phase-out of CFC production in the Montreal Protocol by 2010", the researchers wrote.

The issue involves a gas called CFC-11, a chlorofluorocarbon that contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer.

"They do point in that direction, fairly definitively", Dr Stephen Montzka from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) told BBC News. This means that the total concentration of ozone-depleting chemicals, overall, is still decreasing in the atmosphere.

The protocol was a huge success, slowly shrinking the giant hole that forms over Antarctica each September. However, since 2012, this decline has slowed by around 50%.

Unreported production of CFC-11 outside of certain specific carve-out purposes in the treaty would be a "violation of worldwide law", Weller confirmed, though he said that the Protocol is "non-punitive" and the remedy would probably involve a negotiation with the offending party, or country.

In 2013, plumes of air containing elevated levels of CFC-11 were detected at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. In fact, CFC-11 emissions between 2014 and 2016 were found to be 25 percent higher than the average CFC-11 emissions from 2002 to 2012. Emissions of this CFC to the atmosphere reached about 386,000 tons per year at their peak later in the decade.

Notably, this is the first time emission of one of the three most abundant CFCs has increased for a sustained period, despite production control measures in place.

"If the emissions were to persist, then we could imagine that healing of the ozone layer, that recovery date, could be delayed by a decade", said Dr Montzka.

That said, if the prompt action isn't taken as soon as possible, these emissions can prove to be a major roadblock and delay the recovery of ozone.

Keith Weller, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, which helps implement the protocol, said the findings would be presented to the parties to the agreement for review.

The analysis of these extremely precise and accurate atmospheric measurements is an excellent example of the vigilance needed to ensure continued compliance with provisions of the Montreal Protocol and protection of the Earth's ozone layer.

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