Scientists are reporting a sharp increase in emissions of ozone-killing CFCs, which have been banned worldwide since 1987, by the Montreal Protocol. The emissions threaten to delay the recovery of the ozone layer by as much as a decade, and suggest the CFCs are being produced secretly despite the accord, according to the Washington Post.

The research, published in the journal Nature, was led by Stephen Montzka, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Montzka said:

“I’ve been making these measurements for more than 30 years, and this is the most surprising thing I’ve seen. I was astounded by it, really.”

CFC-11 emissions have risen 25 percent since 2012. The emissions threaten what is considered one of the most significant global accomplishments by environmental advocates. As society became increasingly aware of the damaged ozone layer above Antarctica, advocacy led to policy and policy led in turn to the recovery of the ozone layer. The success is often cited when discussing the world’s ability to reduce the carbon emissions that are causing climate change.

But now, an investigation will likely be necessary to determine the source of the emissions. By the rules set in the Montreal accord, emissions of the chemical should virtually nonexistent.

According to Durwood Zaelke, Montreal Protocol expert and founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, “Somebody’s cheating.”

“There’s some slight possibility there’s an unintentional release, but … they make it clear there’s strong evidence this is actually being produced,” he said of the new report. He noted that the findings were surprising not only because of the ban, but because alternatives now exist that should have rendered CFC-11 obsolete.

As of now, there is little evidence to point to where the emissions are coming from. A US observatory in Hawaii detected CFC-11 among other gases, suggesting the gas could be coming from East Asia.

Montzka added:

“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.’ We don’t know why and if it is being made for some specific purpose, or inadvertently as a side product of some other chemical process.”

Scientists considered other possible explanations, including changes in the atmospheric patterns that disperse older CFCs, a rise in the rate of demolished buildings containing old CFC-11 residue, and accidental production. But given the amount of new emissions, which has totaled 13 billion grams annually, they consider these explanations unlikely.

CFCs were principally used in foam for furniture and buildings, in refrigerants, and aerosols. Production has been reduced to virtually zero since 2007.

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