Global Methyl Bromide Exemptions Over 13,000 Tons
MONTREAL, Quebec, Canada, March 29, 2004 (ENS) - Twelve industrialized countries have won "critical use exemptions" to a year end ban on the use of the pesticide and fumigant methyl bromide at an intergovernmental meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Some 360 participants from 114 countries as well as observer organizations took part in the meeting, which concluded on Friday.
Methyl bromide damages the stratospheric ozone layer that protects all living things from too much solar radiation. Increased radiation leads to more skin cancers and eye cataracts. It also damages plants and animals, including the plankton that sustains the marine food chain.
Disagreement arose between the United States, which was seeking a large exemption to the ban for its growers, and the European Union, which was seeking small exemptions for its member states and a rapid phaseout of methyl bromide production and use.
Compromise was reached by adopting a double-cap concept distinguishing between use and production for critical use exemptions.
This works by setting a cap for new production at 30 percent of the baseline of their 1991 levels. This means that for 2005, Parties must use existing stockpiles if the capped production amount is insufficient for their needs allowed under the critical use exemptions. Precise accounting of existing methyl bromide stockpiles will be central to reducing loopholes in this approach, many Parties said.
A statement released by the U.S. State Department supported the decision and said it “will allow for the continued viability of important agricultural sectors in many parts of the world, including the United States, while continuing the international effort to minimize and eventually phase out use of this ozone depleting substance as soon as possible.”
In addition, a working group was established to review the procedures and terms of reference of the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee.
Because methyl bromide contributes to depletion of the ozone layer, countries agreed in 1995 to phase out its use by 2005 in developed countries, and by 2015 in developing countries, provided that technically and economically feasible alternatives could be developed and marketed by that time.
"The high demand for exemptions to the methyl bromide phaseout shows that governments and the private sector will have to work much harder to speed up the development and spread of ozone friendly replacements," said Klaus Toepfer executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which hosts the Ozone Secretariat that administers the Montreal Protocol.
Under the agreement reached Friday, 12 developed countries have received exemptions to the phaseout totaling 13,438 metric tons of methyl bromide for 2005.
The 2001 consumption figure for all 34 developed countries in 2001 was 23,488 tons - for developing countries, it was 18,058.
The 12 countries are Australia (145 metric tons), Belgium (47), Canada (56), France (407), Greece (186), Italy (2,133), Japan (284), the Netherlands, Portugal (50), Spain (1,059), the United Kingdom (129) and the United States (8,942).
The United States, which was granted a critical use exemption roughly twice as large as the total of all the others, said there is still a lack of technically and economically feasible alternatives.
Alternatives have taken much longer than anticipated to develop, the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
The critical use exemptions granted the United States will cover: food processing, commodity storage, forest seedlings, orchard seedlings, orchard replant, turf and sod, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberry, strawberry nurseries, cucurbits, ornamentals, ginger, sweet potatoes and transplant trays used in certain greenhouse production systems.
U.S. growers of tomatoes, strawberries and peppers particularly have lobbied the U.S. government to get this exemption for them, although the pesticide is used on some 100 U.S. crops and to fumigate storage and transport facilities.
Strawberry farmers inject methyl bromide gas, along with a companion chemical, chloropicrin, into the soil a few weeks before planting. The chemicals kill fungi and bacteria that can cause plant diseases. And they quell weeds that would otherwise compete with young berry plants for water, sunlight, space, and nutrients.
The California Strawberry Commission expressed its commitment to alternatives but said that their use is not feasible now, and said the critical use exemption requested by the United States is "too large a cut over too short a period." The commission asked that its exemptions be raised to support a transition to alternative fumigants.
The U.S. negotiator Claudia McMurray asked the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee (MBTOC) to comment on this request, and the committee responded with support for a more flexible exemption for the strawberry growers. But the Europe Community expressed concern over this response, argued that the original critical use exemption should stand.
The California Certified Organic Farmers said that financial concerns of individual farmers should not be considered more important than environmental concerns or human health.
Concerned over the size of critical use exemptions sought by the United States and other countries, the Natural Resources Defense Council asked that Parties protect the integrity of the Montreal Protocol by reducing the use of methyl bromide as alternatives become available, reporting on existing stockpiles, and providing updates of regulatory actions to consider the latest health and safety data on methyl bromide.
The United States says it will be using an amount of methyl bromide that is 35 percent of its 1991 baseline amount of the chemical. Of that amount, a maximum of 30 percent may be covered by new production. The remaining five percent is expected to come from drawdowns from existing inventory.
The United States wants a still greater exemption. The State Department says it will continue to pursue in meetings later this year a supplemental 2005 request of two percent of its 1991 baseline use of methyl bromide for several agricultural sectors not included in its initial request.
But the liberal policies for granting critical use exemptions followed by the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee and the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (TEAP) may soon be tightened.
At an Informal Consultation on Methyl Bromide convened on March 4 and 5 in Buenos Aires hosted by the government of Argentina and attended by 38 experts from 22 Parties to the Montreal Protocol, concerns were raised that “benefit of the doubt” had been too freely given for critical use exemptions.
Objections were raised that the technical committee and the assessment panel should not have the ability to "independently change the standard of review during the review without first getting the approval of the Parties," according to the Chairman's Report.
Opinions were expressed that TEAP went beyond its mandate by recommending policy. Several participants made the point that more methyl bromide was recommended for critical use exemptions than would have been the case in a more precise interpretation of the protocol.
Still, participants at the informal meeting recognized that it was too late in the growing season to strictly curtail the use of the pesticide without serious economic repercussions, so they agreed to allow the TEAP recommendations stand.
They noted that the large quantities of methyl bromide allowed under critical use exemptions has already caused "significant negative impact in the willingness" of developing country Parties to phase out methyl bromide early.
At the Montreal meeting, the Parties began a process for working out more detailed procedures and reporting requirements for requesting and granting future exemptions, emphasizing the principles of transparency and fairness.
This process will seek to more rigorously define the economic factors that can be used to justify an exemption.
Environmentalists praised the defeat of the U.S. request to increase production, but cautioned that the exemptions will slow the implementation of the treaty.
They contend the Bush administration is responding to some pesticide, chemical and corporate agribusiness firms that are keen to relax the protocol.
“This chemical is as dangerous to people on the ground as it is to the ozone layer,” said Alexander von Bismarck, campaign coordinator for the Environmental Investigation Agency. “Yet we have no idea how much is being stockpiled, where it is, or where it is going."
"Before any more so-called critical exemptions are granted next year, the U.S. government needs to immediately figure out how much U.S. companies have hidden away and to ensure that it is securely distributed," von Bismarck said.
Parties also pointed out that ensuring a more strict and efficient process for evaluating critical use exemptions would help Parties to the protocol to develop confidence in the overall process for the future.
Toepfer is encouraging all governments to speed up research on alternatives to safeguard the ozone layer as quickly as possible. "The best way for governments to protect the integrity of the Montreal Protocol - one of the most successful and important international treaties ever adopted - is to send a powerful signal to both producers and users that methyl bromide does not have a future," he said.
The Sixteenth Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol will be held from November 22 to 26, 2004 in Prague, Czech Republic. It will be preceded by an Open-Ended Working Group from July 12 to 16 in Geneva.
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