Multilateral Environmental Agreements Work: The Ozone Layer is Healing!

Sources: TheGuardian, Vox.com and BBC News

Marc Jourdan, GFDD UN Programs & Outreach Manager

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The Guardian has reported that the vast hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica appears to be healing. This would put the world on track to eventually remedy one of the biggest environmental concerns of the 1980s and 90s, and be a source of inspiration for those battling to resolve the next biggest environmental crisis of the new millennium: climate change.

A research study, published in Science, by US and UK scientists shows that the size of the hole in the ozone layer has shrunk, on average, by around 4m square kilometers since 2000. The measurements were taken from the month of September in each year, when the ozone hole starts to open up each year. The study states that the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals means that the ozone layer is “expected to recover in response, albeit very slowly.”

But how dangerous are CFCs?

shutterstock_143073334Once commonly found in aerosols and refrigeration, CFCs can linger in the atmosphere for more than 50 years, meaning that the ozone hole will not be considered healed until 2050 or 2060.

The Montreal protocol, a 1987 international treaty ratified by all UN members, successfully spurred nations to eradicate the use of CFCs in products.

A source of inspiration for climate policy makers?

The co-author of the report, Susan Solomon, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated to TheGuardian that she is hopeful the successful eradication of harmful CFCs would be followed by strong international action to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Despite the higher net worth of the fossil fuel industry over that of the companies producing these chemicals, Solomon sees “important parallels” between the fight to overcome these two environmental crises. She explained that “it was amazing to see how quickly innovation solved the problem with CFCs so we got rid of them yet still have hair spray and air conditioning. We’re starting to see the same thing with global warming. We should look at the ozone problem and realize that nations can get together and come up with solutions.”

A 2014 UN assessment of the recovery of the ozone layer, includes a quote by the then UN Undersecretary General Achim Steiner (and former head of the UN Environment Programme) stating that “The Montreal Protocol — one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties — has protected the stratospheric ozone layer and avoided enhanced UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface.”

shutterstock_106925534It is true that just because the world banded together and saved the ozone layer doesn’t ensure that we’ll also do the same for future environmental problems, like climate change. However, the ozone case remains the best example of international cooperation to halt a slow-moving ecological disaster, and which actually was successful!

Lessons Learned in the Paris Climate Agreement

This example of successful cooperation took a few years take hold in international climate negotiations (20 to be exact!) as the binding climate change protocol signed in Kyoto in 1998 floundered, and the following attempt to renew it in Copenhagen in 2009 also failed, making it clear that a new type of agreement promoting an innovative approach and solution to the issue would be required.

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The resulting voluntary nature of the Paris Climate Agreement answers that call. As Vox reported in December of last year, this approach ensured universal participation of all UN Member States, as developed and developing countries submitted national commitments. The voluntary nature of the agreement meant that countries could feel more comfortable making ambitious plans.

History was therefore made in Paris on December 12, 2015 as representatives from about 200 UN Member States, convened in an exhibition center in the north of the French capital city to adopt a global agreement to help combat climate change!

To the difference of the Montreal Protocol and the winning fight to plug the hole in the ozone layer, an international agreement alone won’t be sufficient to tackle the complex problem that is climate change, but it will make it very difficult for climate deniers and carbon emitters to avoid addressing the issue. Paris therefore sets a solid foundation for more climate progress, and with the help of civil society, continued grassroots action, calls for climate justice, and support for communities that have historically been reliant on fossil fuels, we can help to make a 100% clean energy future a reality!

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