'Hole' feels the full force of small cogs

Protecting the Ozone Layer
April 18, 2003

Protecting the Ozone Layer is the story of what is undoubtedly the largest global environmental protection programme to date. It tells of how chemicals that society came to rely on were first developed and introduced into everyday use; how scientists first came to suspect that these compounds might destroy the ozone layer; and how nations, the chemical industry and society acted together to prevent a global environmental disaster.

From about 1900, ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) were commercially used in fire protection, as solvents for cleaning and in pest control. But it was only in the 1930s, with the development of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), seen as "miracle substances", that the rate of emission of ODSs started to pose a threat to the ozone layer. In 1974, two atmospheric chemists, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, suggested that chlorine from CFCs could destroy the ozone layer. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) invoked a World Plan of Action involving intensive research into the processes controlling atmospheric ozone as well as the environmental impacts of changes to the ozone layer. At the same time, some companies began to phase out CFC-based aerosol products and to research alternatives, and national governments began to regulate the production and use of CFCs. These actions were under way before the ozone "hole" was reported in 1984 by the Japanese scientist Shigeru Chubachi and confirmed in 1985 by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey.

The "hole" provoked an international effort to protect the ozone layer, which led to the signing of the all-important Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Even though the regulations within the protocol were only a small first step, the unprecedented international agreement paved the way for further controls of ODSs through amendments at subsequent meetings of the parties based on expert assessments from the scientific, environmental, technical and economic communities. In many ways, it was the stepwise nature of this approach that enabled the protocol to work. It did not alienate opponents, but through careful negotiation, ensured international cooperation. Often these negotiations occurred informally behind closed doors under the leadership of the UNEP executive director, Mostafa Tolba. These gatherings became known as the "Friends of Tolba" group. They allowed government representatives to be freed from formal commitments and enabled more open discussion in which better mutual understanding and widely agreed solutions could be reached.

The formal meetings of the parties were open to non-parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as environmental and industrial groups. Representatives from developing nations such as India and China were able to express their concerns, which led to the setting up of the Multilateral Fund (MLF) and agreements regarding technical transfer. The MLF, sourced by contributions from developed countries, supported the conversion to new ozone-friendly technologies in developing countries.

Without it many developing countries would not have signed up to the Montreal Protocol, because they did not have the technology and would have been forced to buy CFC substitutes from developed countries.

The need to control emissions of ODSs stimulated industry into technological advancements, which led not only to more environmentally friendly products but in many cases to improved products at lower operational costs. Many large corporations began to recognise the market value of being seen to show environmental leadership and of building strong relationships with emerging markets through supporting technology transfers.

The book discusses the roles played by thousands of people, both collectively and as individuals: scientists (including the future Nobel laureates in chemistry Molina and Rowland), politicians (such as Margaret Thatcher who hosted the London conference on saving the ozone layer), civil servants, lawyers, industrialists, agriculturalists, environmental activists, journalists and users of spray cans and other household products that can lead to ozone depletion. As an atmospheric scientist I was part of this. The book shows me that my contribution, though tiny, was vital - an essential cog in a huge global process.

Protecting the Ozone Layer will therefore appeal to a range of people, but at different levels. Overall it provides an exhaustive documentation of how the global community acted through the UN to protect the ozone layer: a detailed historical record for future generations. But each chapter has been written so that it can stand alone, which allows a reader to dip into the book. In fact some chapters are written by, or involve significant contributions from, people other than the two listed authors, Stephen O.

Andersen and K. Madhava Sarma. Both were deeply involved in the UN process and write authoritatively about it, but their decision to draw on other contributing experts from different fields mirrors the complexity of the real world.

Such a format makes the book somewhat repetitive if read straight through, and I think most people would do best to read only a few select chapters.

For me, chapter one, "The science of ozone depletion", was the most relevant. For those involved in the political process, chapters two, three and four on "Diplomacy" will probably be of most interest. Technologists will be attracted to chapter five on "Technology and business policy", journalists to chapter eight on "Media coverage of the ozone layer" and environmentalists to chapter nine on "Environmental NGOs, the ozone layer and the Montreal Protocol".

Though at times the book becomes a record of meetings, it is brought to life by personal perspectives. Here, some of the leading players - politicians, scientists, industrialists and environmentalists - give their own view of events. This reminds us of how decisions taken at international, national and corporate level were forged by individuals.

The story told here ends at a point where the actions facilitated by the UN have led to significant reductions in the emissions of ODSs, such that the total concentration of chlorine containing ODSs in the lower atmosphere is now declining. This should eventually lead to a recovery of the ozone layer, but it may be a few years yet before we are able to detect a significant improvement. Furthermore, global warming from greenhouse gases may delay the process of recovery. This book therefore tells us a major success story and illustrates how an international response to a global threat was made possible and effective. It warns against complacency as new technologies and ODSs are developed and offers useful lessons for those dealing with global warming and other future global environmental problems.

Claire Reeves is senior research associate, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia.

Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History

Author - Stephen O. Andersen and K. Madhava Sarma
ISBN - 1 85383 905 1
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 513

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