Tackling ozone-depleting substances as casualties mount in Afghanistan
Kabul – On a recent Monday morning on 24 July, the Director General of National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), H.E.Mostafa Zaher and his environment team along with UN Environment and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) were strategizing improving the country’s environment and reviewing graphs projected on a meeting-room wall.
Outside, not very far away, at the same time a Monday bomb attack on a minibus carrying government workers in Kabul killed at least 31 people. As Afghanistan continues to transform itself after years of conflict and with turmoil on the rise, why would anyone here care about the ozone and ozone depleting substances? After all, today Afghans want to get on with their lives, find decent employment, put a roof over their heads, meals on the table, and safely send their children to school.
In the capital city, there are signs of recovery virtually everywhere - sprawling hotels, glitzy shopping centres, new buildings and expensive homes are on the rise. The post war expansion, however, also has a downside with Afghanistan becoming the dumping ground of unwanted goods. The influx of used cars and second-hand home appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioning units, has left a hidden yet harmful mark on the environment.
Virtually unknown to Afghanistan’s population are man-made chemicals found in these appliances like hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), being emitted in the atmosphere that cause continued damage to the earth’s already fragile ozone layer and increase global warming.
“From a scientific perspective, ozone depletion is a global phenomenon,” says Ms. Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Paris-based head of OzonAction Programme with UN Environment. “It is not a country specific phenomenon like air pollution, but this is a global phenomenon where action that has been taken by the global community affects the ozone layer and also action taken by the global community heals the ozone layer, so in that respect Afghanistan is an equal partner as any other country which is leading to more pollution or more depletion of the ozone layer,” explains Bedouelle.
MONTREAL PROTOCOL – THE BEGINNING OF THE END
When production of ozone depleting substances reached a worldwide peak during the late seventies and eighties the earth’s citizens were consuming one million metric tonnes a year of the toxic man-made chemicals.
The repercussions were felt almost immediately. Increased amounts of harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation caused many to develop skin cancer, eye cataracts and suppressed immune systems. Changes to ecosystems and species were noticed. Along the way, emissions also had an effect on the food we eat by causing reductions in agricultural productivity.
Enter the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an environmental agreement ratified by developed nations who understood the urgency and gravity of the ozone depletion problem and committed themselves to making swift changes. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed it as “perhaps the most successful environmental agreement.”
Within 10 years, most of the ozone depleting substances and environmental problems had been eliminated. The Montreal Protocol was a success story, but now it was up to those same developed countries to help developing nations address the latest amendment to the Montreal Protocol, called the Kigali Amendment, agreed in October 2016 that laid down control measures for the phase down of another global warming gas by the name of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
Because the total elimination of ozone depleting substances from these countries would virtually kill their socio-economic development, developed nations recognized the need in 1991 to establish a Multilateral Fund giving financial and technical assistance to enable developed countries, like Afghanistan, to phase out ozone depleting substances without disrupting their economies.
In June 2004, Afghanistan ratified the Montreal Protocol becoming the 188th party. Presently Montreal Protocol is universally ratified and there are 197 parties.
EARLY SUCCESS FOR AFGHANISTAN
Last week, national stakeholders, industry, civil society, government officials and international environment experts gathered in Kabul to create awareness for and implement a national phase out plan for ozone depleting substances. Apart from a three-day Green customs training for customs officers, intensive discussions were held with key national actors on issues like certification of technicians, policy setting like banning of imports of HCFC based equipment and its implications.
Despite being behind, having signed the Montreal Protocol in 2004, compared to neighbouring countries Iran and Pakistan which ratified 10 years earlier and have had the time and resources to not only meet their obligations, but also phase out their consumption of gases, Afghanistan had already reduced its consumption of HCFCs by 10 percent in 2015, no mean achievement considering the context.
“Under the Protocol the obligations are the same for Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, so that means if Iran ratified in 1995, by 2015 they had to reduce their consumption by 10 percent. Afghanistan has been able to achieve in the first six to eight months what would have taken some countries two to three years,” says Andrew Scanlon, Country Head of UN Environment office in Kabul, pleasantly surprised at how quickly this war-torn country, rife with security issues, has been able to catch up in a relatively short amount of time.
“The action it has taken on the environment side is something that needs to be outreached, because this is one country where things just happened,” he says.
Present studies prepared by UN Environment in Afghanistan revealed the country currently consumes 425 metric tonnes of HCFCs, an amount calculated following a country wide data collection exercise that counted the number of refrigeration cylinders found in air conditioning units, ice machines, and refrigerators. Comparing this figure to what a neighbouring country like Iran consumes – nearly 5,000 metric tonnes - may seem miniscule, but as a late signatory to the Protocol Afghanistan needs to reduce this consumption to almost zero by the year 2030.
Despite the widespread security problems and its impact on development, experts all agree that this has been one success story that needs to be told - Afghanistan will be able to meet its 2030 obligation.
“Part of the reason for that is the fact the government is new whereas in other established countries ministries have been in competition with one another. Here because it is new it has been easier to have cooperation between ministries,” says H.E. Mostafa Zaher, Director General of National Environmental Protection Agency. “Afghanistan has been very quick and it will continue.”
$1 MILLION PROVIDED FOR PHASE-OUT PLAN
The Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund has provided approximately US $1 million to implement activities that will enable Afghanistan to begin a Phase-Out Plan to reach the 2030 zero-tolerance target.
Under the guidance of the UN Environment, a National Ozone Unit set up with the National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) is already paying dividends.
“Last year the government initiated the banning of the importation of ozone depleting equipment and this past July the government strengthened the ozone depletion substance regulations which will force importers to acquire a license making them liable if they import greater amounts of ozone depleting substances. The license will be cross-checked by customs officials which will allow the National Ozone Unit to have a closer look and control on all imports,” says Samim Hoshmand, the Ozone Officer from Kabul.
Last week Government’s plan to ban imports of HCFC based equipment from 1.1.2018 was presented to key national actors including Ministry of Justice, RAC technician union, importers of equipment, Afghan Korea Vocational Training Institute. Already alternative technologies have started appearing in the markets of Kabul. “I have imported 5 large chiller systems from USA based of natural refrigerants this year” says Aman Osman, a leading importer of RAC appliances. “I care about my environment and I learnt that natural refrigerants will help us in maintaining cleaner environment. But I need engineers who can design better and efficient AC systems for large buildings where these chillers will be installed. I need trained and licensed technicians to handle these new gases” says Aman.
Furthermore, a 10-month training program on refrigeration practices has begun last year. Once trained, technicians in eight Afghan cities will be able to replace or retrofit existing units, safely remove hazardous gases, and find suitable places to store waste. Currently the Afghan Korea Vocational Institute is taking the lead in training technicians under the UN Environment project. During the joint UN Environment- United Nations Industrial Development Organization mission agreement was reached with the Vocational institute to make it a hub for training of technicians and explore certification approaches. Within the next 12 months, the Institute will be receiving United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) -approved equipment allowing them to deal with handling flammable refrigerants. “The equipment will strengthen the Institute’s capability to train local technicians in good practices for handling new technologies that are already entering the Afghan market,” said Mohammadi Alireza, United Nations Industrial Development Organization’s international consultant for Afghanistan.
There is also the important issue of unnecessary amounts of energy being used due to Afghanistan’s long summers, where temperatures are known to hover around 40º Celsius. “A good part of electricity consumed on the electricity grid goes to refrigerators and air conditioners. So if you do something that affects the efficiency of these appliances it will impact the load on the electricity grid. So that is a secondary benefit,” explains Atul Bagai, Senior Regional Coordinator for OzonAction based in Bangkok. For Afghanistan, the major question for ozone depleting substances will be the maintenance of refrigerants found in cars, refrigerators, and air conditioning units.
ROBUST BORDER PATROLS NEEDED
If this seems relatively simple consider Afghanistan’s porous border, which allows neighbouring countries eager to sneak in their unwanted, HCFC-laced, second hand products into the country.
“There is a big import of used refrigerators from Russia, Central Asia, Iran, and Pakistan,” says Mr. Ghulam Malikyar, Deputy Director General in National Environmental Protection Agency. “Pakistan is still manufacturing HCFC-based refrigerators and they have increased their exports to Afghanistan. So the problem now is that we have to phase out these HCFC-based products.” “That is going to be the biggest challenge,” says Malikyar, who sees the need for close collaboration with the ministries of Justice, Finance, Commerce, and Border and Tribal Affairs.
And support to these efforts through activities like the three-day Green Customs train the trainers workshop (23-25 July 2017) at the Customs and tax Academy in Kabul will help the country in effective patrolling of its borders to stop illegal entry of these harmful gases. The workshop organized by UN Environment within the framework of south south cooperation included the participation of about 25 master trainers from HQs and various provinces with sensitive international borders from where these gases enter the country illegally sometimes. The lead trainer was a retired Additional Director General Tharaka Seneviratne from Sri Lanka Customs and Huib Van Westen from Dutch Enforcement Agency.
Very soon the next round of Teheran Dialogue will be organized with the border customs of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and Ozone Officers from these three countries to strengthen the border patrols.
“I will not say that they have been able to successfully achieve what they wanted to because it is such a long, porous border. However, authorities are also finding it hard to grapple with the normal trade taking place, but these efforts with UN Environment will strengthen good coordination between these countries” remarked Shamroz Khan Masjidi, Director of Operations in Afghanistan Customs Department while opening the training workshop.
HOW BIG IS THE OZONE HOLE?
In terms of size the hole, which shifts every year, is said to be as big as the North American continent and because of the various climactic conditions the hole keeps changing. However, recent findings show matters may be improving. “The ozone hole has stabilized in 2010’s and if the present compliance continues at the global level, then the ozone layer will reach its pre-1970s status in another 50 years.” says Bagai. And Afghanistan would have played its role in this remarkable feat.
Most agree that climate change is real and while talk of the ozone and ozone depleting substances may seem odd in this war-ravaged country, action by Afghanis today will cancel out many of tomorrow’s environmental concerns.
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