“Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol.”
—Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations
Twenty five years ago this month, the Montreal Protocol was opened for signatures. The protocol involved countries from all over the world and was put into force on January 1,1989. Its purpose was to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had been used commonly as refrigerants, propellants in aerosol cans, and solvents. CFCs are known to damage the ozone layer, a component of the atmosphere that helps protect us from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.
Many today consider that the Montreal Protocol helped to safeguard the ozone layer from ongoing damage due to CFCs, ultimately leading to millions of future lives saved, and avoiding a complete global catastrophe altogether. It’s worthwhile to review the story of how we accomplished this task and see if there are any lessons we can take from the story so we can apply them to the problems we now face with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and global warming.
In 1973, two scientists by the names of Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina working at the University of California, Irvine realized that CFCs could rise through the atmosphere, leaving the troposphere—defined as that part of the atmosphere from ground level to anywhere from 15 to 20 kms up depending on latitude—and enter into the higher stratosphere. At that level, the sun’s radiation can break apart CFC molecules, leading to chemical reactions that split apart ozone molecules which are made of three separate oxygen atoms. (The oxygen we breathe has only two oxygen atoms.) Since ozone helps to shield Earth’s surface from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, less stratospheric ozone would mean more UV energy making its way through to the Earth’s surface, leading to increases in skin cancer, cataracts, immune-related diseases, and would also damage crops and marine plankton. For their role in figuring out the problem with CFCs and ozone damage, Roland and Molina shared the Nobel Prize in 1995.
How did the world react to this scientific hypothesis? Many people became concerned and stopped purchasing aerosols. The era of roll-on antiperspirants and pump spray bottles was born. Many companies responded to the changing market demands and modified their products accordingly, but some companies fought the concerns over potential damage to the ozone layer tooth and nail. They attacked the science as being incorrect, denigrated the scientists as having hidden agendas, and predicted economic hardships if CFCs were dispensed with.
Sound familiar? It should: the tobacco industry did the same thing years before, and the fossil fuel industry is doing the same thing now. As one example of rhetoric coming from deniers at the time, the Dupont Chairman of the board was quoted as saying that ozone depletion theory is “a science fiction tale…a load of rubbish…utter nonsense.”
In 1985, the science reached a level where there was no longer any doubt. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey confirmed that the ozone layer over the South Pole was decreasing in size, ultimately to be confirmed by other independent groups. That same year, 20 nations (including most of those that produced CFCs) came together at the Vienna Convention and established a framework for helping to negotiate how to regulate CFCs which were clearly harming our planet. A year and a half later, the binding agreement in Montreal was reached, to be put into force a little over a year later.
Throughout the negotiations, Dupont still fought the process. In 1986, it founded the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy and continued to argue that the science was filled with too much doubt to justify doing anything about it. In 1987, DuPont even testified before Congress, stating “we believe that there is no immediate crisis that demands unilateral regulation.” Of course, they were wrong and the ozone layer has been steadily increasing ever since although it still has a way to go.
This is a real success story of how scienctific understanding supported by evidence to prove a hypothesis demonstrated that human activities were harming our planet, leading the nations of the world to come together to regulate the offending agents despite the many protestations from the very industry that manufactured those agents, using attacks against science and scientists to help spread misinformation and create doubt.
In my opinion, the effort into solving the ozone crisis was so successful so quickly because it targeted only one particular group of pollutants, even though many countries were involved in the negotiations. Although an important part of industry for most of the twentieth century, CFCs were relatively simple to phase out because the economic framework of our society could still survive largely unscathed without them. Phasing out CFCs involved billions of dollars, but phasing out fossil fuels will cost many trillions of dollars. Because of the significant role they play in the global economy, the situation with fossil fuels is therefore going to be much more difficult to tackle than CFCs.
Hopefully we can use lessons learned from the success of the Montreal Protocol to steer us in the right direction toward a solution to our GHG emissions before it’s too late.