Saving the ozone: an environmental success storyAn evolving harmonisation of global scientific knowledge, political values, and economic incentives saved the stratospheric ozone.
I remember growing up hearing about the expanding gigantic ozone hole over Antarctica. Scientists repeatedly warned us that depletion of the ozone layer would mean that we would lose our protection against harmful UV rays. They predicted increased incidences of skin cancers in humans and ecosystem collapse if humanity did not act immediately and collectively to stop using ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC).
Last year, NASA reported that the ozone hole over Antarctica was the smallest that it had been since it was first discovered in 1982. NASA reported that the hole had reached its largest size in 2000 and that it is expected to return to its 1980 level by 2070. While some of this shrinking has been a result of abnormal Antarctic weather during a handful of anomalous years, scientists attribute much of this progress to the successful eradication of ozone-depleting substances from human industrial activity.
This ozone problem occurred when ozone-depleting gases like CFC and HFC drifted up to the stratosphere and reacted with the ozone molecules to destroy them. These gases were produced to be used in refrigeration, air conditioning, and aerosol spray cans.
In response to this news, in 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was finalised and eventually ratified by 197 signatories—making it the first treaty within the United Nations to have universal ratification. This international treaty aimed to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out the production and use of harmful gases. Since it has come into effect, it is estimated that over 99 percent of these problematic chemicals have been eradicated and is considered to be one of the most successful international agreements in human history.
It was the strict and timely enforcement of this treaty that led to the ozone healing process. Despite being a global collective problem that requires international coordination and cooperation, the story behind ozone replenishment is considered to be the biggest environmental success stories. Meanwhile, addressing climate change—that relies on the same global cooperation—has failed to move ahead with the same force. So what went right with the ozone issue and what lessons does it hold for reversing climate change?
The science behind ozone depletion was easy to understand
First, the science behind the causes and impacts of ozone depletion was straightforward. So were the required remedial actions: CFC and HFC production needed to be stopped. Helping raise awareness among the public regarding this was also NASA, who produced many clear before-and-after images of the ozone hole that tangibly showed the impending danger. This clarity helped propel the world community into action.
Meanwhile, global warming is a much more complex issue and its impacts on climate, ecosystems and human societies are numerous, often hidden and distributed in space and time. However, it is not only that people find it hard to internalise the magnitude of the problem, but it is also hard to deduce where meaningful counteraction can start as so many sectors depend on fossil fuels. This complexity also complicates scientific communication. The narrative of climate change is, therefore, not compelling for the human psyche.
Ozone-depleting substances lost their market appeal
As the Montreal Protocol was being ratified, there was good news on another front: evolving innovations had found alternatives for ozone-depleting substances. The global implementation of the Montreal Treaty also meant that there was a level market for competition. So to avoid sinking under increasing environmental protections, polluting industries like DuPont showed little to no resistance and made the required changes.
The same cannot be said about fossil fuel industries, however. While renewable energy produced through sun, wind, water, and uranium is becoming increasingly competitive, so much of our infrastructure and habits have been formed to function around fossil fuel-based energy that it has created a path-dependent mindset that dissuades most people regarding the economic upsides of climate-friendly technologies. It does not help that fossil fuel industries still stand to make a lot of profit from oil still in the ground and have spent substantial money to perpetuate an economic narrative that favours their product.
Ozone protection was a bipartisan issue
The image of the frightening (and easily imagined) ‘hole-in-the-sky’ was enough to generate enough momentum to phase out ozone-depleting substances. There were no substantial divisions in public opinion that Dupont and other polluting industries could exploit, even if they had wanted to.
However, this was not true regarding the public opinion on climate change, which is sharply divided along partisan lines in US and Australia—two nations with the highest per capita greenhouse emissions rate. Exxon and other oil giants like it have continuously lobbied politicians and funded thinktanks to advance climate denial or to deny the importance of climate action. In the US, for example, a substantial number of right-wing politicians and pundits have influenced their constituencies into believing that climate change is a Chinese strategy to upend the current geopolitical order.
We were able to successfully phase out ozone-depleting substances because of a perfect combination of scientific communication, political will and economic incentives in the late 1900s. The job now is for climate change scientists, practitioners, and activists to emulate these strategies and make the urgency and benefits of climate change action more apparent.
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