Learning from a healing ozone hole

Learning from a healing ozone hole
A photo of the Iberian Peninsula from the International Space Station showing the upper atmosphere in gold and green - Image Copyrights: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr

Ever since humans first travelled into space, we have heard stories about the fragility of the pale blue dot that is our planet. This fragility is partially attributed to the Earth’s “paper-thin” atmosphere, the only protection we have from the darkness and emptiness of space and the interstellar objects and radiation that could be harmful to us, such as hurtling asteroids and ultraviolet radiation. The ozone shield, for example, our main protection against the Sun’s hostile rays, is only 20 km wide on average; let’s compare it to wrapping a 1cm-wide marble in a single layer of plastic wrap.

If all the protection we have against volatile external forces is a single layer of plastic wrap, and that plastic wrap starts wearing thin and showing holes, it would be wise to take good care of it. This was the message the world received in the 1980s, when the Antarctic ozone hole was identified by researchers, just under a decade after scientists first mentioned ozone depletion. The message was clear; the ozone layer protected us from genetic damage and skin cancer, it was getting weaker, and human-made products were at the root of the issue.

People around the world started to become increasingly cautious about a depletion of the ozone layer and ensuing risks, it did not take long for governments to mobilize. Individual countries started banning products emitting CFCs, the main chemical guilty of ozone depletion, as early as the 1970s. In 1987 the world agreed to cap CFC production at 1986 levels and commit to long-term reductions. Under a decade later, CFC production was banned in developed countries, and developing countries followed soon after.

To stop ozone depletion, the world agreed to cap CFC production in the 1980s, a chemical used to propel aerosols like hair spray - Image Copyrights: Classic Film, Flickr

The ozone case was time-sensitive, yet the battle against ozone depletion was a success like the world had never seen. In 2016, just 40 years since researchers first spoke of ozone depletion, a gradual trend toward ozone ‘healing’ was reported, and it is believed that the ozone layer will recover to 1980 levels near the middle of the 21st century.

On this International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, themed “32 years and healing,” we can rightfully celebrate over three decades of remarkable international cooperation to protect the ozone layer. Ozone layer protection efforts have not just helped drive ozone healing but have also contributed to the fight against climate change by averting an estimated 135 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. This shows that solutions can be advantageous on multiple fronts without watering down the benefits.

This day also reminds us that we must keep up the momentum to establish a future of healthy people and a healthy planet. As we head into an era of ozone healing, let’s push to keep hold of these gains, particularly by remaining vigilant and tackling any illegal sources of ozone-depleting substances as they arise. We must also commit ourselves to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which entered into force on 1 January 2019 and aims for the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs); this can simultaneously support the protection of the ozone layer and avoid further global temperature rise.

Finally, let’s keep learning from ozone successes as we tackle other issues regarding chemicals and waste. Perhaps by looking at what did and didn’t work in reversing the damage done to the ozone layer, we can gain inspiration to halt and reverse the damages done by other hazardous chemicals. Congratulations to our chemicals family for caring for the ozone layer. Let’s keep on working for a chemical-safe future together!

Published on Monday, September 16, 2019
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