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Remember the ozone hole?

It is no secret that on a global scale, the world is suffering from issues such as climate change and its related processes, poverty, pollution, malnourishment and hunger, and lack of security and wellbeing. While it can be depressing to think about all these current global problems, I think it is really important to remember that we have actually succeeded on a number of similarly pressing issues.

Do you remember hearing about the “hole in the ozone”? Well, it is actually something that gives me a lot of hope! That’s because it was a global problem of pollution that crossed borders and affected human health, agriculture and ecosystems. Yes, sounds familiar right? But guess what we got together and are on track to have that problem solved in the next 30 years! Yes, I said SOLVED!

Doing it together makes it work

With these global, large-scale problems, we need countries around the world to work together on the same goals and targets in concert on these issues. While individual nation’s efforts to solve an environmental or social issue are beneficial, their efforts can easily be offset by other nations that are not pulling their weight. We all know that working together gets the job done faster but it also helps to alleviate trade imbalances and inequalities when it comes to environmental regulations.

A holistic approach to solving these issues must be accepted and adopted on a global scale in order to move towards a future where the quality of life is improved for all living beings. This is where strategic, universal, unified, and quantifiable goals are extremely helpful in getting the job done.

One of the earliest, best examples

This kind of teamwork has proven to be highly effective in the past. In fact, one of the very best examples of nations coming together to solve a pressing issue is celebrated every year on September 16th. In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed September 16th the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, commemorating the date of the signing, in 1987, of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Why protect the ozone layer?

The Montreal Protocol, one of the most successful environmental agreements to date, was created as a global agreement to protect the ozone layer. This agreement regulates the production and consumption of almost 100 different man-made chemicals referred to as ozone depleting substances (ODSs).

Now, why is it important to prevent the depletion of the ozone layer? The stratospheric ozone layer is vital when it comes to protecting life on earth. It absorbs ultraviolet light, therefore preventing DNA in plants, animals, and humans from being damaged. We can think of it as the earth’s own sunscreen. And we know what happens when we don’t wear sunscreen…the occurrence of sunburns and skin cancer increases significantly.

Does everything cause cancer? Nope, but UV radiation does. When the ozone layer becomes thinner, the amount of UVB rays that reach the Earth’s surface increases. UVB causes non-melanoma skin cancer and plays a large role in malignant melanoma development. In addition, UVB is associated with the development of cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens.

And of course, UVB radiation affects more than just humans. UVB radiation affects the physiological and developmental processes of plants, as this radiation damages cell membranes and all organelles within the cell. Damage to these cell organelles both directly and indirectly impairs basic plant processes such as photosynthesis, respiration, growth and reproduction.

This has terrible implications for not only the plants that provide us with oxygen, but also agricultural crops that provide us with food.

Clearly, there is a need to protect our ozone layer from ozone depleting substances.

The Montreal Protocol

In the early 1980’s, scientists began to realize that the ozone layer over Antarctica was beginning to thin out. This then became known as the “ozone hole” (although it’s worth mentioning that there was no actual hole, the ozone concentrations in this area had dropped below the historical threshold of 220 Dobson Units).

By 1991, the ozone concentration had fallen below 100 Dobson Units (DU) for the first time. Since then, concentrations below 100 DU became more and more common.

This ozone hole made scientists aware of the effects of human activity on the atmosphere. It was discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had a terrible impact on the ozone. CFCs are chemicals that had previously been used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays for many years. It turns out, once these CFCs reach beyond the stratosphere, UV light caused them to break apart and release chlorine that is responsible for ozone destruction.

The Montreal Protocol, which has been ratified by every country on earth (all 198 UN Member States), worked to phase down the consumption and production of CFCs and other ozone depleting substances (ODS) by creating unified responsibilities and steps for all parties.

These responsibilities include taking control of ODS trade, annual reporting of data, national licensing systems to control ODS imports and exports, along with other matters. And most importantly, all nations are subject to binding, time-targeted, and measurable commitments.

What we’ve achieved and ongoing efforts needed

Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is projected to recover by sometime in the 2050’s. It is estimated that without this treaty, ozone depletion would have increased tenfold by the middle of this century compared to current levels. This is quite a scary thought!

While we have seen considerable improvements regarding ozone layer depletion, this doesn’t mean our job is done! There are plenty of other environmental issues that deserve the same amount of cooperation and dedication. For example, another group of substances, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are commonly found in today’s air conditioners, refrigerators, and aerosols. These chemicals don’t deplete the ozone, but they do have high global warming potentials.

We can’t afford to continue releasing harmful chemicals that contribute to global temperature rise into the atmosphere. Luckily, the Parties to the Montreal Protocol reached an agreement in 2016 to phase down HFCs just like they did with ozone depleting substances.

This is another step in the right direction. António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, makes a great concluding statement:

“Let us take encouragement from how we have worked together to preserve the ozone layer and apply the same will to healing the planet and forging a brighter and more equitable future for all humanity.”

Now, be sure to be responsible when disposing of any refrigerant containing appliance. We don’t want those chemicals to enter the atmosphere, but beyond that, let’s take the successes of the Montreal Protocol and remember that we did this in the past and can do it again.

No, I am not pretending that issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity or plastic pollution are as seemingly simple as ODSs, but please, let’s not be disheartened. We have a track record of success to build upon and we certainly have the will to do it!

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