China on 'fridge war' frontline: Millions of peasant kitchens threaten ozone layer

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The Independent Online
FOR CHINA'S 900 million peasants, economic reform starts at home. First comes the bicycle. Soon afterwards, they want a television. Then comes the family fridge.

It is a good choice. By keeping food fresh, a fridge in every kitchen would do wonders for the health of the Chinese. Unfortunately, it may also endanger the health of the planet.

Refrigerators contain CFCs - chlorofluorocarbons - the main cause of the depletion of the ozone layer, which shields all life from the lethal ultraviolet rays of the sun, and powerful contributors to global warming, which threatens to raise sea levels and devastate harvests.

China has one-fifth of the world's population - and one- fifth of the world's kitchens. Combine that with the world's fastest-growing economy, and there is the potential for a huge jump in the number of the fridges on the planet. One study suggests that China will have 376 million of them within 40 years, more than 12 times as many as today.

This cold revolution, and a similar expansion in India and other developing countries, could put paid to the world's belated efforts to save its atmosphere. Just as the West is phasing out CFCs and beginning to control global-warming gases, they are starting to buy environmentally lethal fridges.

More than enough damage has already been done to the ozone layer, the fragile shield of gas spread so thinly through the stratosphere that if it were collected together it would form a ring around the earth no thicker than the sole of a shoe.

Measurements last month showed the Antarctic ozone hole to be bigger than ever. And at the beginning of the year, levels of the protective gas over Britain, Europe and North America reached record lows.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that every loss of 1 per cent of ozone, sustained over many years, will cause an extra 50,000 people worldwide to develop skin cancer and another 100,000 to go blind from cataracts. It threatens to cause enormous damage to crops, and to plankton, all-important to the life of the sea.

But the governments of developing nations, not unreasonably, say that their first priority is to take care of the health of their own people by enabling them to buy fridges.

The best hope of a way out of this impasse was on display yesterday at Peking's International Trade Centre, where an unlikely alliance of Greenpeace activists and German government officials attempted to persuade a roomful of Chinese manufacturers to take up a new environmentally friendly fridge design. The 'Greenfreeze' fridge, developed by the environmental pressure group, was on display all week at its stand at the International Household Appliances Exhibition in Peking.

Germany is offering financial backing to Chinese refrigerator manufacturers who convert their factories to produce it. By coincidence, Chancellor Kohl visits China next week and may himself indulge in a spot of fridge diplomacy.

The appliance is powered by lighter fuel, a mixture of propane and butane, and is insulated with another hydrocarbon (cyclopentane).

The chemicals are cheap and non-poisonous, do no damage to the ozone layer, and make virtually no contribution to global warming. Furthermore, it uses less energy than a conventional fridge, and is easy to make. But the new appliance has had to struggle against enormous international resistance to prove itself.

The struggle is the result of a David-and-Goliath battle to provide the successors to CFCs, which by international agreement are to be phased out by 1995 in industrialised countries, and 10 years thereafter in the Third World.

The Goliaths, the big multinational chemical and manufacturing companies, have already developed their own substitute chemicals, but the Davids in Greenpeace say these provide no answer.

The first substitute chemicals, HCFCs, also attack ozone, and though they are not as damaging as the CFCs they replace, they too will have to be phased out under the international treaty that is supposed to protect the ozone layer, but not until 2030.

The second group of substitutes, HFCs, are environmentally friendly, but are powerful global-warming gases. Dr Joe Farman, the scientist who discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, says that replacing CFCs with these two types of chemicals is 'like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire'.

But chemical companies have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the substitutes, and Western governments have fought to protect their investment.

In 1989, shortly after her celebrated, but short-lived, green conversion Margaret Thatcher challenged industry to produce ozone-friendly fridges. She can scarcely have expected Greenpeace to have been her most enthusiastic taker.

Less than two years ago the environmental group assembled researchers from the Dortmund Institute of Hygiene, who had developed the mixture of propane and butane, and a refrigerator manufacturer in the former East Germany, who was facing liquidation after German reunification.

It commissioned the company, DKK Scharfenstein, to produce prototypes, drummed up 70,000 advance orders from its supporters, and helped to rescue the factory from closure, saving 540 jobs.

Then, says Professor Harry Rosin, one of the Dortmund scientists, 'we suddenly realised that we had disturbed a huge industrial lobby, which had decided among themselves that HFC was the next coolant in the world refrigeration systems, and was intending to make much profit from it'.

The big German fridge manufacturers launched a joint attack on the new green technology. Britain's ICI, which has invested massively in an HFC, attacked Greenpeace as 'irresponsible', and suggested that it might take 10 years to establish whether the technology was practicable. Opponents alleged that the Greenfreeze fridge was 'a potential bomb in the kitchen' (it has passed safety tests).

But, against all the odds, David won. In February, just five months after they had denounced the green alternative, several German manufacturers announced plans to make similar fridges. Ten days later, the biggest Australian manufacturer followed suit.

Britain lags behind. Green German fridges are on sale here, but there are no British models. Earlier this year when Environment Minister Tim Yeo wanted to buy an ozone-friendly fridge for his office, he had to buy a German-made one, and he warned UK manufacturers that they would have to 'beat out competitors' by producing them too. So far, according to the Department of the Environment, no company has taken up his challenge.

The Department of Trade and Industry says that it mentions the green technology to manufacturers and adds that they are merely 'watching the situation'.

Not for the first time, the peasants of China may turn out to be more progressive than the Whitehall mandarins.