The motivating example of the Montreal Protocol

ozone-layerIn 1988 was signed the Montreal Protocol, which restricted the use of CFC – ChloroFluoroCarbons – gases that harm the ozone layer, our sole protection against UV rays.

To the NASA this was a tremendous success as large troubles have been avoided. Without this success, our world could suffer of massive DNA mutations induced by massive UV radiations.

If 193 countries signed a treaty to avoid this, could they do the same 20 years later to avoid climate change, biodiversity loss or oceans pollution. I want to believe we can !

Below is the NASA statement:

The year is 2065. Nearly two-thirds of Earth’s ozone is gone — not just over the poles, but everywhere. The infamous ozone hole over Antarctica, first discovered in the 1980s, is a year-round fixture, with a twin over the North Pole. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation falling on mid-latitude cities like Washington, D.C., is strong enough to cause sunburn in just five minutes. DNA-mutating UV radiation is up 650 percent, with likely harmful effects on plants, animals and human skin cancer rates.

Such is the world we would have inherited if 193 nations had not agreed to ban ozone-depleting substances, according to atmospheric chemists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Bilthoven.

Led by Goddard scientist Paul Newman, the team simulated “what might have been” if chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar chemicals were not banned through the treaty known as the Montreal Protocol. The simulation used a comprehensive model that included atmospheric chemical effects, wind changes, and radiation changes. The analysis has been published online in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

“Ozone science and monitoring has improved over the past two decades, and we have moved to a phase where we need to be accountable,” said Newman, who is co-chair of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Scientific Assessment Panel to review the state of the ozone layer and the environmental impact of ozone regulation. “We are at the point where we have to ask: Were we right about ozone? Did the Montreal Protocol work? What kind of world was avoided by phasing out ozone-depleting substances?”

Ozone is Earth’s natural sunscreen, absorbing and blocking most of the incoming UV radiation from the sun and protecting life from DNA-damaging radiation. The gas is naturally created and replenished by a photochemical reaction in the upper atmosphere where UV rays break oxygen molecules (O2) into individual atoms that then recombine into three-part molecules (O3). As it is moved around the globe by upper level winds, ozone is slowly depleted by naturally occurring atmospheric gases. It is a system in natural balance.

(…) In the 1980s, ozone-depleting substances opened a wintertime “hole” over Antarctica and opened the eyes of the world to the effects of human activity on the atmosphere. By 1987, the World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environment Program had brought together scientists, diplomats, environmental advocates, governments, industry representatives, and non-governmental organizations to forge an agreement to phase out the chemicals. In January 1989, the Montreal Protocol went into force, the first-ever international agreement on regulation of chemical pollutants.

“The regulation of ozone depleting substances was based upon the evidence gathered by the science community and the consent of industry and government leaders,” Newman noted. “The regulation pre-supposed that a lack of action would lead to severe ozone depletion, with consequent severe increases of solar UV radiation levels at the Earth’s surface.”

2 thoughts on “The motivating example of the Montreal Protocol”

  1. I agree, and I’ve offered that as an example to doubters before. However, it’s worth remembering that they’re not the same kind of thing we’re regulating.

    CFCs were a relatively small but significant part of our lifestyles and economies, and substitutes were quickly and easily available. Refrigeration is essential if you want to be able to have big cities (since food must be grown far away). Aerosol cans are not essential, but are useful.

    Fossil fuels, deforestation, food production and chemical and cement industries are much bigger and more vital parts of our economies. It was pretty easy to start putting other gases in fridge coolant systems and aerosol cans; it’s not so easy to build out renewable electricity generation, train lines, improve the lives of people in the Third World so that they’ve no need to cut all their forests down, and so on.

    So a climate change avoidance treaty is a much bigger thing than was the Montreal Protocol. It’s a much bigger task to fulfill it. It’s like the difference between getting someone to go on one date with you, and getting them to marry you. One is pretty easy, the other takes years of effort 🙂

    It is of course not impossible, we only have to decide to do it. But it’s not easy. Nonetheless, as you say, Montreal shows that international agreements are possible. I think though that a better comparison is the various Geneva Conventions and Protocols: a series of treaties over many years about various things which not everyone went along with at first, and still don’t today. Despite not getting the entire world to follow them, the major countries more or less do, and while the horrors of war remain, we’re not likely to see another firebombing of Dresden or the like.

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