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How humanity solved the crisis of Earth’s depleting ozone

In 1985, atmospheric scientists revealed humanity was on a path to wiping out our entire ozone layer within a few decades. Since then, a combination of scientific, economic, and diplomatic action has all but solved the crisis.

After a 12-month delay, we’re finally closing in on COP26, yet rhetoric around climate change remains as disheartening as many of us can recall.

Uttering the word ‘crisis’ directly after climate has all but become a reflex in 2021. Covid lockdowns provided brief respite from the negative lull, as industry and national emissions plunged, but today we’ve picked right up where we left off.

Amidst all the demoralising reports and daily doom scrolling, however, it’s important to galvanise ourselves with reminders of old success stories. When it comes to the planet, we have to avoid existential nihilism at all costs.

That’s why we’re here to tell you arguably the most inspiring environmental story, of how unprecedented action – the kind of which we’re hoping to see in November – helped to restore our ozone layer from the brink of ruin.

How we saved ourselves (from ourselves)

It would be wrong to suggest that the gas barrier between our planet and the Sun’s powerful UV radiation is in pristine condition, but the damage inflicted last century has largely been reversed.

In the 1970s, researchers first noticed that our ozone had started thinning around the poles but it took 10 years for any kind of action to materialise. Why? Because drastic change involved taking dents to economic growth projections.

Atmospheric researchers Maio Molina and Sherry Rowland found that one specific area of our stratosphere had thinned by 30% in a decade, and quickly highlighted the probable cause as CFCs.

If you’ve not heard of CFCs, or ‘chlorofluorocarbons,’ they were popular compounds used throughout the 1930s and beyond for aerosol sprays, foams, packing materials, and solvents.

Manufacturers believed them to be a dream for profits: non-toxic, cheap, and highly effective. The underlying issue was that their ample amounts of chlorine and fluorine were binding with and wreaking havoc on our atmosphere.

The pair released a research paper outlining the extent of their impacts in 1974, but their findings were dismissed as ‘flukes.’ It was only when their conclusions were corroborated years later by Susan Solomon in 1986 that the science became widely accepted.

The next and most vital stage of the fight, was getting governments to actually do something about it. Awfully familiar to where we find ourselves with climate policy today, eh?

In that year, UN negotiations began over a treaty to completely phase out the commercial use of CFC which was spearheaded by Stephen Andersen, an official in the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Three years later, the ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances’ became the first real framework of its time to call for global cooperation on one common environmental goal. As climate solutions expert David Nicholson says, it ‘systematically identified hundreds of solutions for phasing out CFCs from hundreds of industry sectors.’

Policymakers across the world mostly achieved their domestic goals, with CFC consumption falling from 800,000 metric tons in the 1980s to around 156 metric tons in 2014.

As it stands today, the ozone layer could be set for a full recovery within the next 50 years. The science was right!

Hope for the future of climate policy

The methodology behind completely ousting CFCs was far from perfect in hindsight – for one, refrigerants like air conditioning and dehumidifier units are still using HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) which are better for the ozone but still very pollutant to the climate.

Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, it was mighty impressive to see worldwide efforts take shape in a relatively short space of time. It just goes to show that what can be achieved with the right level of urgency.

As we alluded, reflecting on these events feels particularly apt today with concerns mounting that COP26 could feel more like a rebuke of failures than a landmark event for progress.

Climate deniers have all but been dispelled in recent years, but it would appear our science hasn’t united governments anywhere near as effectively as the UN in 1986.

Countries are anything but unanimous in their pledges to decarbonise our atmosphere, and certain industries prefer to greenwash without making any meaningful alterations.

Those with their glasses half full may suggest that our pressing need for action now – as we draw ever closer to targets outlined in the Paris Agreement – could deliver a drastic attitude change at COP26.

Much in the same way as the 1980s with the ozone, the warning signs are burning brighter than ever.

It’s unlikely that the annual conference will solve everything, or that all geopolitical tensions and economic goals will be put to one side for the sake of the planet, but we’ve seen definitive proof that it can happen.

Let’s hope we can see the building blocks of something significant in the coming months. If not, prepare for another year of daily doom scrolling.