Marty Logan

The hole in the ozone layer risks looming larger after the world community agreed Friday to permit the US and 10 other northern countries to continue using a pesticide that was supposed to be off-limits from 2005. The meeting was called after nations failed to agree last year on what exemptions should be granted to the northern nations for using the pesticide, methyl bromide, in instances where it was deemed critically important.

Washington had wanted approval to produce and use methyl bromide until 2007, while the European Union (EU) argued the exemptions should be granted for just one year. According to EU officials, technically and economically feasible alternatives to methyl bromide could come on-stream after 12 months.

Delegates decided late Friday, after the meeting’s translators had retired for the night, to grant the northern states a one-year exemption, but not to commit to amounts for the following years. In fact, they tightened the requirements for future exemptions. The northern countries will now be allowed to use an amount equal to more than 50 per cent of all the methyl bromide consu-med by 34 developed nations in 2001, and nearly three-qua-rters of that used by developing nations the same year. The push for exemption was led by the US.

Methyl bromide is classed as an ozone-depleting substance because it damages the stratospheric layer that protects people, plants and animals from solar radiation, which can produce skin cancer and eye cataracts.

Argentinean delegates added that there had probably been too much optimism “about the speed at which methyl bromide could be phased out, when countries agreed in 1997 to allow

exceptions to the ban for critical uses”. This view was echoed by others.The Argentine delegation pushed hard during the three-day gathering to grant some leeway to developing countries that are ahead of schedule in reducing their use of methyl bromide, which farmers use to kill pests on strawberries, tomatoes, cut flowers and many other crops. The pesticide is also used in meat and vegetable processing.

The debates took place during the first extraordinary meeting of countries that signed on to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. The Protocol added teeth to the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, widely viewed as the world’s most successful environmental treaty. It covers some 100 chemicals, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). According to the Protocol, developing nations had to freeze their use of methyl bromide in 2002, and then reduce it by 20 per cent by 2005 and 100 per cent by 2015. Developed countries previously agreed to cut methyl bromide by 25 per cent by 1999, 50 per cent by 2001, 70 per cent by 2003 and 100 percent by Jan. 1 2005.

Friday’s decision directs the northern countries to provide some of the pesticide they will use next year from stockpiles, rather than producing more of the substance. The ozone layer is expected to return to health in about 50 years.Led by Argentina, many developing nations here argued that granting long-term exemptions to countries that were supposed to stop using methyl bromide next year would provoke opposition from their farmers, who would insist on not being hampered by limits that others did not respect. Many developing

countries also objected to a call for them to set out more precisely how they would phase out their use of methyl bromide before the next meeting of a multilateral fund, which to date has provided 1.4 billion dollars in technical and financial assistance to those nations. — IPS