We’re running out of time to address the climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have 11 years to take serious global action if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C – the point at which scientists say the Great Barrier Reef will have ‘only’ declined between 70% and 90%. But despite the need for immediate and drastic action, global emissions continue to rise year-on-year. To make matters worse, it’s clear that political leaders aren’t getting the message. The Australian government is refusing to discuss climate change as bushfires rage across the east coast of the country, while in the US the Trump administration has formally given notice it will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
Given this backdrop, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about humanity’s chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change. But the reality of climate change is quickly overshadowing politics. Whether or not politicians accept the science, the increasing prevalence of once-in-lifetime natural disasters is evidence enough for much of the public. It’s clear that we must take immediate global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and start the transition to a zero-carbon world. The Paris Agreement is a good start, but it is nowhere near adequate. The good news is there are lessons from history that show humanity has taken collective action to solve existential threats in the past.
There are many public health achievements humanity can proudly point to in recent history. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from 25% of the global population in 1990 to just 10% today; the introduction of vaccines has eradicated deadly diseases like smallpox; and public policy continues to reduce tobacco smoking rates in developed countries. Collective political action has also been successful on a national scale. The Civil Rights movement helped bring an end to segregation in the US; the Women’s Suffrage movement earned women the right to vote, with New Zealand leading the way in 1893; and more recently we have seen marriage equality across the developed world.
When it comes to global solutions to environmental problems like climate change, one historical parallel is the effort to combat ‘acid rain’ that began in the 1960s. Decades later the problem has been largely fixed, thanks to the 1985 Helsinki Protocol on the Reduction of Sulphur Emissions as well as an emissions trading scheme in the US. This article will focus on a more recent man-made crisis that, like climate change, poses an existential threat to humanity: the destruction of the ozone layer.
The hole in the ozone layer
For many people, fears about a ‘hole in the ozone layer’ are little more than a memory. It’s not something we hear about anymore, and that’s largely because the ozone layer is now on the road to recovery. The first thing to understand is that it’s not really a ‘hole’ at all. The ozone layer is a fragile layer of gas in the Earth’s lower stratosphere that protects life from the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. For the most part it is three millimetres thick, but in parts – particularly above Antarctica, depending on the season – it is as thin as one millimetre.
The presence of ozone in the atmosphere is vital for life on Earth. Without it, UV rays would pass directly to the surface of the planet. Walking outside would result in almost instant sunburn, skin cancer rates would soar and plants would die because photosynthesis wouldn’t be possible. It wouldn’t be pretty. So, it’s no surprise that scientists were alarmed to discover in the late 1970s that the ozone layer was thinning. It wasn’t until 1974 that it was proven that man-made chemicals, mainly chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerants and aerosols, were destroying the ozone layer. In other words, human actions were wrecking the planet’s ecosystem and we needed immediate global action to fix it. Sounding familiar yet?
Fortunately, 24 countries adopted the Montreal Protocol in 1987 and agreed to limit the use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting pollutants. As a result, 99% of CFCs used in air-conditioners, refrigerators and aerosols have been phased out. And here’s the really good news: the ozone layer is on track to completely heal itself by the middle of this century! Due to collective global action, parts of the ozone layer have recovered at a rate of 1-3% per decade since 2000. The Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone layers are projected to return to 1980 levels by 2030. This will be followed by Southern Hemisphere ozone in 2050 and the polar regions in 2060.
As a bonus, the global agreement to restore the ozone layer will also prevent future greenhouse gas emissions. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which entered into force on 1 January 2019, will see the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – a potent greenhouse gas. If fully implemented, the Kigali Amendment will prevent 0.4°C of global warming by the end of the century. While this is a nice side-effect of efforts to protect the ozone layer, it is only part of the collective action needed to halt catastrophic global warming.
Lessons for today
There are some key differences between the efforts to protect the ozone layer and the global action we need on climate change. Decarbonising the world economy requires a massive commitment by all countries in the world, whereas efforts to reduce CFCs were largely focused on the regulation of US multinational DuPont. While DuPont initially lobbied against efforts to ban CFCs, it soon relented – partly because it was in the process of transitioning to newer products anyway. The same cannot be said about the fossil fuel industry, which has lobbied relentlessly against both the science of climate change and the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions for more than 50 years.
Another reason for the success of the Montreal Protocol was the strong public reaction to scientific revelations about the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. Fears about a hole opening up in the sky were intensified by reports of sheep going blind and skin cancer becoming endemic. Widespread concern made the public policy changes required to tackle the problem easier for politicians to implement. Climate change has been a much more slow-moving crisis lacking something as tangible as a ‘hole’ in the atmosphere to capture the public imagination. However, that could be changing with the increasing incidence of natural disasters around the world. For example, there are signs that catastrophic and unseasonably early bushfires could be shifting the public debate in Australia.
Thirty-two years after the adoption of the Montreal Protocol we should take heart that the world came together to take immediate, decisive action to solve an environmental crisis that was created by humans. We did it before, and we can do it again!
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