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The ozone is recovering – can the climate be next?

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Ozone layer

In 1995, Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland received the Nobel Prize for the work he did in 1974 which showed that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy ozone, a fragile shield of gas which protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun.

CFC – the non-flammable, non-toxic and easy-to-use gaseous chemical – suddenly became a synonym for large scale destruction of life on Earth. We had proof that the ozone-layer in the higher atmosphere was declining as data emerged of an ozone hole over large parts of the Antarctic in 1982.

Since the early 80s, Greenpeace was campaigning to raise awareness of the dangers of the fast growing CFC production. There were just two dozen companies that were responsible for the bulk of these chemicals. DuPont, the inventors of CFCs, made them commercially available in 1930. In the early 80s, they were largest global producers of CFC and H-CFC (an agent which was slightly less damaging to ozone) used mainly for cooling purposes, with about 25% global market share.

Together with companies like Bayer, Hoechst, DowChemical, ICI and other chemical giants, DuPont was leading global campaigning against any restrictions on CFC. Arguments used were similar to those used by certain fossil fuel companies when addressing carbon pollution today. It was argued that millions of jobs were at stake, millions of people would die as a result of interrupted freezing facilities, mainly in the developing world. ‘Crying wolf’ was the mantra of those days.

Commitments to change

Fortunately, governments responded relatively quickly. As early as 1978, and before the detection of the ozone hole, the US government banned CFC in aerosols. In the 80s, the US government was one of the drivers for a legal convention on the ozone hole. The arguments put forward by NGOs and scientists were heard.

I will always remember David Doniger – already then and still today with the National Resource Defence Council (NDRC) and a long-term expert and fighter on the ozone-issue – who said in a 1986 television interview: “Compared to the threat of the ozone hole, nuclear accident impact of Chernobyl is like a local trash fire”.

Some corporates changed, too. While some of the European and German chemical companies still maintained the destructive nay-sayer line and were defending ridiculous positions, not all of them did so.

DuPont took the courageous step of changing from being ‘ozone sceptics,’ arguing that stopping CFC production would kill millions of people worldwide, and became one of the drivers of a constructive phase-out policy for CFC and H-CFC. They figured out that there are alternatives that should be promoted instead.

That work in the 1980s led to the Montreal Protocol (MP) by nations on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer agreed in 1987, a dozen years after Molina and Sherwood’s ozone research. After the Protocol came into force in 1989, additional findings on an increasing atmospheric ozone hole (but also new research and fast commercialisation of cheap ozone-friendly alternatives) encouraged governments towards a series of regular strengthening of the commitments contained in the MP during the 1990s.

And it has led directly to the announcement last month that the earth’s protective ozone layer is well on track to recovery in the next few decades thanks to concerted international action against ozone depleting substances, according to a new assessment by 300 scientists. The Assessment for Decision-Makers, a summary document of the Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2014, is published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and is the first comprehensive update in four years.

In their announcement, UNEP and WMO stated: “Without the Montreal Protocol and associated agreements, atmospheric levels of ozone depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050. According to global models, the Protocol will have prevented 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030, averted damage to human eyes and immune systems, and protected wildlife and agriculture.”

It’s not over yet

This is a major environmental success story, but this is no time to rest on our laurels. The CFC substitutes are, themselves, potent greenhouse gases. The impact of human activities on our planet is still dangerously high. Of course, CFCs are not CO2. But we can learn from that process in the way that we address the climate change challenges that face us now.

The Montreal Protocol provided general support for developing countries to successfully phase out CFCs. How much money is on the table now for climate action in poorer countries?

Technological panels in the Protocol allowed scientists to advise governments at the highest levels. Do we have clean energy experts and climate scientists as negotiation leaders in the UNFCCC?

The spirit of the Montreal negotiations and its amendments centred around the ‘phase-out’ of these destructive gases. Aren’t the talks on climate focusing too much on costs, economic burden, offsets and other loopholes on CO2 reductions?

We need a change now too as we face the most serious climate challenge of all – reducing carbon emissions significantly in order to keep global warming below 1.50C. This is no time for timid interventions.

I hope that the US government might lead again in Paris and broker an agreement that will break the back of the fossil fuel industry in a few decades and bolster the clean renewable energy options instead. Naïve No! I didn’t give up when I was a young activist in the 80s, sitting on chimneys and roofs of the major corporate polluters, and I am not going to give up now.

Dr Stephan Singer is WWF’s Director for Global Energy Policy. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

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