President George Bush is targeting the international treaty to save the ozone layer which protects all life on earth from deadly radiation, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
New US demands - tabled at a little-noticed meeting in Montreal earlier this month - threaten to unravel one of the greatest environmental success stories of the past few decades, causing millions of deaths from cancer.
The news comes at a particularly embarrassing time for the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who pressed the President in their talks in Washington last week to stop his attempts to sabotage the Kyoto Protocol which sets out to control global warming: one of the few international issues on which they differ.
Now, instead of heeding Mr Blair, Mr Bush is undermining the ozone treaty as well, by seeking to perpetuate the use of the most ozone-destructive chemical still employed in developed countries, otherwise soon to be phased out. Ironically, it was sustained pressure from the Reagan administration, in which Mr Bush's father served as vice-president, that ensured the treaty was adopted in the first place. It has proved such a success that environmentalists have long regarded it as inviolable.
The ozone layer - made of a type of oxygen so thinly scattered through the upper atmosphere that, if gathered all together, it would form a ring around the earth no thicker than the sole of a shoe - screens out the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays which would, otherwise, wipe out terrestrial life. As it weakens, more of the rays get through, causing skin cancer and blindness from cataracts.
The world was shocked to discover in the 1980s that pollution from man-made chemicals had opened a hole the size of the United States in the layer above Antarctica, and had thinned it worldwide. Led by the US, nations moved with unprecedented speed to agree the treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, in 1987 - which started the process of phasing out use of the chemicals.
The measures have been progressively tightened ever since. Scientists reckon that they will eventually prevent 2 million cases of cancer a year in the US and Europe alone. But President Bush's new demands threaten to throw the process into reverse.
They centre on a pesticide, methyl bromide, now the greatest attacker of ozone left in industrialised countries. The US is responsible for a quarter of the world's consumption of the chemical, which has also been linked with increased prostate cancers in farmers.
Under an extension to the Montreal Protocol, agreed in 1997, the pesticide is being gradually phased out and replaced with substitutes; its use in the West is due to end completely in 2005. Nations are legally allowed to extend the use of small amounts in "critical" applications, but the US is demanding exemptions far beyond those permitted, for uses ranging from growing strawberries to tending golf courses.
It is also pressing to exploit a loophole in the treaty - allowing the use of the chemical to treat wood packaging - so that, instead of being phased out, its use would increase threefold.
The demands now go to an international conference in Nairobi this autumn. Experts fear that, if agreed, the treaty will begin to fall apart, not least because developing countries - which are following rich nations in phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals - could cease their efforts.
"The US is reneging on the agreement, and working very, very hard to get other countries to agree," said David Doniger, a former senior US government official dealing with ozone issues, who now works for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If it succeeds, it threatens to unravel the whole fabric of the treaty."
Dr Joe Farman, the Cambridge scientist who discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, added: "This is madness. We do not need this chemical. We do need the ozone layer. How stupid can people be?"Reuse content