If it wasn’t for the 1987 Montreal Protocol — a global agreement to protect the ozone layer often dubbed one of the most successful environmental actions of all time — our planet would already be facing a more devastating future, according to a new study published in Nature. The main takeaway is one of positivity, that global efforts can work to mitigate the damage we are doing to our planet – a message sorely needed ahead of the upcoming COP26 Climate Change Conference.
In the new research, an international team of scientists led by Lancaster University used modeling to show how the banning of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the 1980s has already helped to migrate a significant amount of climate change. The new study estimates that the continued growth of CFC use could have resulted in a worldwide collapse in the ozone layer by the 2040s.
Many people are understandably skeptical about whether policymakers and governments can or will make the necessary changes needed to avert devastating climate change within the next few decades. However, the Montreal Protocol shows that meaningful global action is achievable (although world leaders need to get their act together ASAP).
After the hole in the ozone layer was first discovered in 1985, the world acted quickly to resolve the problem. By 1987, 196 countries and the European Union signed the Montreal Protocol, which saw the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances such as CFCs used in refrigerators and aerosols, that were found to be eroding the ozone layer. This region of Earth’s atmosphere has a high concentration of the gas ozone compared to other parts of the atmosphere and effectively acts as a shield for our planet, absorbing much of the Sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Thanks to the ban of CFCs, the ozone layer is now recovering well (aside from a few natural seasonable blips) and is expected to be fully healed by 2060.
CFCs are potent greenhouse gases, so their phase-out has helped address climate change simply by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Their ban also helped by averting UV damage to plants. Less ozone would mean more harmful UV radiation from the Sun, which would have brought a huge amount of damage to the natural environment’s plant life. Since plants are an important carbon sink, their absence would mean more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
The loss of plant life caused by UV damage could have resulted in an extra 325 to 690 gigatonnes of carbon ending up in the atmosphere by the end of this century, the study shows, resulting in a further 0.5°C (0.9°F to 1.0°C (1.8°F) of additional global mean surface temperature warming.
“Without the protocol human health would have been severely impacted and UV would be catastrophic for vegetation. Increased UV would have stopped plants being able to soak up so much carbon from the atmosphere which would have led to greater global warming,” Olaf Morgenstern, from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, said in a statement.
Together with the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, the Montreal Protocol has been ratified by every member of the United Nations, making them the first universally ratified treaties in history. Can we expect an equally unified — and successful — response to the climate crisis? As this study suggests, it’s not out of the realms of possibility, and given the bleak findings of the latest IPCC report, we better hope we act soon.