Lao People’s Democratic Republic clamps down on refrigerant smugglers

The raid is not like other police raids.
No flashing lights and no breaking down doors. There is no cache of weapons to seize. But on a planetary scale, what the police came to confiscate is no less dangerous.
On the outskirts of Vientiane, Lao Environment Police enter a nondescript shop selling refrigerators, rice cookers and other appliances, flanked by officials from the Pollution Control Department and the Department of Domestic Trade.
They have been tipped off that the shop is likely selling smuggled refrigerants.
Many refrigerants are subject to strict regulations in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as they are in other countries. Some are banned entirely. In the 1970s, scientists discovered certain refrigerants called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer.
A global agreement, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, was forged to phase out these ozone-depleting substances. Replacements for CFCs, called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are also now being phased out under the Protocol due to their extremely high global warming potential.

In the shop, the staff lead the officials to a back cupboard that is crammed full of hundreds of cylinders of R22, R32, R134a and R410a refrigerant gas, all of which require permits in Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
The staff plead that the customs documents and permits are all with a co-owner of the shop, who is out of the country.
Thevarack Phonekeo, National Ozone Officer for Lao People’s Democratic Republic, seems skeptical anyone has the appropriate documents. Later, he explains why. “The license is issued by the Lao National Ozone Unit and the Pollution Control Department. That’s usually my responsibility and I have not seen theirs.”
Without appropriate documentation, that means confiscation.
“We have to follow the regulations of the domestic trade department,” says Phonekeo. “Today we got around 150 cylinders. That’s almost 2,000 kilos.”
For a first offence, traders are usually let off with a warning. After that, fines range between 1 million to 10 million Lao kip (US$110-1,100), and potentially a business license revocation.  
While regulation of these refrigerants is widespread globally, enforcement is not. To address this challenge, Lao People’s Democratic Republic has an established mechanism to empower an inspection and confiscation team. 
“Preventing the illegal entry of controlled refrigerants can be a challenging task at the best of times,” says Shaofeng Hu, Senior Montreal Protocol Regional Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific. “Part of the issue is that officials simply can’t physically check most of the imported commodities and technicians aren’t always clear on the damage these refrigerants can do.”
Refrigerants can be full of counterfeit gases, mixtures that will destroy appliances, start fires, cause injury and, of course, severely damage the environment.
Refrigerants can also be easily hidden. Some canisters are barely larger than a beer can.
“Customs officers say smugglers will mix the refrigerant containers with other products, making it impossible to check,” says Phonekeo. “Even bringing in a little bit at a time, if you do it a few times a week, that’s a lot.”
UNEP, through the OzoneAction Compliance Assistance Programme, has been supporting efforts to address these challenges in Lao People’s Democratic Republic and other countries.
In particular, UNEP has provided a number of trainings for customs officers on what to look out for. Technicians have also received training on what they should and should not use.
These trainings have also been backed with financial support from the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund.
“We’ve been encouraged by how enthusiastic countries have taken to the task of developing, implementing and enforcing measures to control HCFCs and other ozone depleting substances,” says Hu. “In doing so, governments are helping protect the ozone layer and prevent climate change. Lao People’s Democratic Republic is an excellent example of the efforts we are seeing in countries across the region. We need to see continued enforcement in every country if the regulations are to be effective.”
Indeed, Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s Joint Inspection Team, which leads the enforcement for ozone-depleting substances, won accolades from the United Nations last year, taking home the 2019 Asia Environmental Enforcement Award in the category of impact.
Several pick-up trucks are required to haul away the nearly two tonnes of confiscated refrigerants to a secure warehouse. Currently, there is no way to destroy the gases in a cost-effective way and they can only be stored indefinitely.
At the warehouse, the confiscated items are laboriously piled next to a 700-kilogram haul from 2019.
Fortunately, the warehouse is large and there is plenty of room for the next seizure.

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Climate action

Ozone

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