The Montreal Protocol: Saving Earth’s vital ozone layer

In 1985, three British scientists working at the British Antarctic Survey stunned the world when they discovered that at certain times of the year a hole opened up in the stratospheric ozone layer above the South Pole. Their observations, backed up by data provided by NASA satellites, were published in Nature magazine in that same year.

Subsequent studies demonstrated that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used at the time in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems as well as in aerosol sprays, were tearing open a hole in earth’s ozone layer, causing dangerous levels of ultraviolet, cancer-inducing radiation to reach the earth’s surface.

Just two years later, in August 1987, a unified global community rallied together and finalized The Montreal Protocol, which phased out the production and consumption of man-made ozone-depleting substances.  At the time, America’s Republican president, Ronald Reagan, encouraged the Senate to ratify the agreement, which it did.

In the speech he delivered at the signing, Reagan took the opportunity to underscore both the global nature of environmental challenges and the need for international cooperation. Here are his words:

“The Montreal Protocol is a model of cooperation. It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects.”

This historic agreement—ratified at a time when science still held sway over at least some of public policy—has been hailed as “one of the most successful multilateral agreements in history.”

Before the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to the White House, preceding administrations had affirmed America’s commitment by joining the international community and agreeing to additional amendments to the protocol. The fifth and most recent amendment, called the Kigali Amendment, was negotiated as late as 2016 with the full support of the Obama administration.

The Kigali Amendment proposes to phase down the production and consumption worldwide of hydro-fluorocarbons (HFCs), which have been used as a substitute in refrigeration and air conditioning since the phase-out of CFCs mandated by the Montreal Protocol. As understanding of climate science has advanced, it’s been proven that HFCs are greenhouse gases that are more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere.

Currently, thirteen Republican senators, led by Louisiana’s John Kennedy and Maine’s Susan Collins, have recommended that the Trump administration support their efforts to gain support for ratification of the Kigali Amendment. Tragically, even with the support of the refrigeration and air-conditioning industries and projections of increased manufacturing jobs and significant export growth, the Trump administration is slow walking the proposal and calling for more study on the issue.

Good news

In the big picture, The Montreal Protocol proves that a firm and long-term commitment by the international community to science-based responses to climate change can achieve significant results. According to multiple studies, including one released at the end of 2018 by the United Nations entitled “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2018” and another completed by NASA, thirty years after implementation of The Montreal Protocol, the phased elimination of CFCs has done exactly what the scientists had hoped it would. The ozone layer is now on the path to recovery.

And there’s even better news. The Montreal Protocol’s Scientific Assessment Panel now projects that the ozone layer will see almost complete recovery by the middle of the twenty-first century.

That’s great news for the global community. With full, continuing implementation, this still-groundbreaking agreement will have long-lasting health and environmental benefits. It’s estimated that:

  • 280 million cases of skin cancer will be avoided.
  • Approximately 1.6 million skin cancer deaths will be prevented.
  • More than 45 million cases of cataracts will be avoided in the U.S. alone.
  • Decreased ultraviolet radiation will prevent reduced agricultural output and the disruption of marine ecosystems.

To view a video on the science of ozone, CFCs, and HFCs, watch here.