Of potholes and ozone holes

 K. Madhava Sarma describes the success of the fight against ozone depletion but warns against complacency

When scientists first published their discovery of how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) depleted the stratospheric ozone layer in 1974, they started a revolution not just in industry but also in international cooperation between governments, scientists, United Nations organizations and the media. The story of depletion of the ozone layer is now well known. The thin layer of the gas in the stratosphere efficiently screens out excessive ultraviolet radiation from the sun and allows through just enough to sustain life on Earth. More ultraviolet radiation leads to a range of effects, including skin cancers, eye cataracts, loss of immunity and reduction of plant yields.

CFCs, invented in 1928, are non-toxic to human beings, non-flammable, long-lived and versatile. These apparent ‘wonder gases’ became used in many industries such as refrigeration, air conditioning, fire fighting and metal cleaning. But scientists reported that they would eventually reach the stratosphere and destroy the ozone layer. Unless the use of the very profitable CFCs was phased out throughout the world, all life would be in danger.

UNEP’s role
UNEP, in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization, catalysed the world’s governments to agree to the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985 and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987. The Convention is a framework of intentions while the Protocol lays down a timetable for phasing out 95 chemicals by all its Parties. It provided a period of grace to developing countries in recognition of their difficulties in transforming their industries to ozone-friendly technologies. And since 1991 there has been a Multilateral Fund, to which the developed countries contribute, to help them.

Implementing the Protocol has had pleasing results:

  • Fruitful collaboration between science, media, governments and United Nations organizations. Science has led to awareness, which in turn has led to new policies being made and implemented.

  • A successful example of capacity building in developing countries. Almost all the Parties, including 120 developing ones, report data on the 95 controlled ozone-depleting chemicals each year.

  • There is near-universal participation in the agreements. One hundred and seventy countries ratified the Vienna Convention, and 169 the Montreal Protocol.

  • The industrialized nations have almost phased out their consumption of many of the controlled chemicals. Consumption has been cut from 1 million tonnes in 1986 to about 14,000 tonnes – only for essential uses. Globally, consumption has come down by 85 per cent.

  • The Russian Federation and some countries of Eastern Europe, which were unable to comply with their 1996 phase-out schedule, have promised to complete it by the year 2000 with assistance from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). This is an example of the Protocol’s facilitative and successful approach to enforcement.

  • The GEF, the World Bank and donors have sealed a bargain with the Russian Federation to close its CFC production facilities by the end of 2000.

  • The developed countries, minus the countries of the former USSR, have so far contributed $950 million to the Multilateral Fund.

  • The Executive Committee of the Fund has functioned excellently and has sanctioned projects that will phase out nearly 60 per cent of the consumption of developing countries. These are implemented through the United Nations Development Programme, UNEP, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the World Bank.

Humanity must be forever watchful to ensure that ozone-depleting substances are banished from the world

  • The Fund’s Executive Committee has negotiated agreements with India and China gradually to close down their production facilities over the next 10 years.

  • Brazil has already closed its CFC manufacturing facilities.

  • The latest scientific assessment found that the abundance of ozone-depleting compounds in the lower atmosphere peaked in 1994 and is now slowly declining, proving that the Protocol is indeed working.

  • Scientists predict that ozone depletion will peak over the next two decades and, if the Montreal Protocol is fully implemented, the ozone layer will recover by the year 2050.

  • If there had been no Montreal Protocol, there would now be five times as much chlorine in the atmosphere and about 10 times as much ozone depletion. As a result, there would have been many more millions of cases of skin cancer and eye cataracts.
These positive developments instil confidence that the Montreal Protocol will succeed in protecting the ozone layer. But confidence should not lead to a complacent assumption that the problem has been solved. We must remember to negotiate carefully the potholes on the road ahead:

  • Ozone-depletion will peak in a few years and the ozone layer recover gradually only if the Montreal Protocol is fully implemented.

  • Global warming could adversely affect the ozone layer.

  • The Russian Federation and other countries of Eastern Europe will have to deliver on their promises to phase out by the end of 2000.

  • Developing countries will have to fulfil their part of the bargain, beginning their phase-out this year and completing it by 2010.

  • The Multilateral Fund will have to continue to be replenished each year until the task is completed. ‘Donor fatigue’ or complacency should not divert funds.

  • There is a danger of new ozone-depleting chemicals, not controlled by the Protocol, being introduced into the market. The Parties are now considering ways to tackle this.

  • Illegal trading in CFCs could cause backsliding by some industries.
Clearly humanity must be forever watchful to ensure that ozone-depleting substances are banished from the world. New technologies must be screened continuously to ensure that they are ozone-safe. The extraordinary spirit of cooperation of governments, scientists, technologists, media and the United Nations organizations must continue until the objective is achieved. Eternal vigilance is the price of a safe world

K. Madhava Sarma is Executive Secretary of the Secretariat for the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol, UNEP.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn?

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Ozone 1997
Don de Silva: Grassroots: Greenfreeze is cool (Atmosphere) 1996
G.O.P. Obasi: The atmosphere: global commons to protect (Atmosphere) 1996