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Published on September 17th, 2019 | by Tina Casey

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Nope, It’s Not Too Late: We Saved The Ozone Layer, Didn’t We?

September 17th, 2019 by  


It seems like only yesterday that scientists around the world warned of a hole forming in the Earth’s ozone layer, with devastating consequences in store for life as we know it. Well, that was back in the 1980s. Things have changed since then. Yesterday was Ozone Day, and the United Nations marked the occasion with all the good news about the amazing recovery of the ozone layer.

ozone layer global warming

Hole in ozone layer over Antarctica maxed out in 2008 (via NASA).

Global Action On The Ozone Layer

The ozone success story has some obvious parallels in the fight for global action on climate change, so let’s break it down.

Ozone is made up of molecules consisting of three oxygen atoms. It is a sort of atmospheric sunscreen that prevents damaging levels of the Sun’s radiation from reaching Earth.

Considering its critical role in planetary health, though, the ozone layer is also a sort of atmospheric diva. Left to its own devices, it is continually depleting itself and therefore in need of constant replenishment by other gases.

That delicate balance was upset by the invention of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the 1920s.  CFCs quickly gained popularity as refrigerants, among other uses. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, environmentally speaking.

By the 1970s, scientists were gathering evidence that CFC molecules drift up to the stratosphere, where they break down into elements that destroy ozone molecules.

Irrefutable evidence of a wintertime ozone “hole” over Antarctica was in hand by the 1980s, with far more depletion in sight. Somewhat miraculously from today’s perspective, the global machinery of environmental policy making swung into action among all 193 members of the United Nations. By 1989, a first-of-its-kind global ban on CFCs and related chemicals went into force through the Montreal Protocol.

Just in the nick of time! In 2009, NASA modeled what the Earth would have looked like by 2065 without the Montreal Protocol:

“…The ultraviolet (UV) radiation falling on mid-latitude cities like Washington, D.C., is strong enough to cause sunburn in just five minutes. DNA-mutating UV radiation is up 650 percent, with likely harmful effects on plants, animals and human skin cancer rates.”

Yikes!

Let’s All Celebrate Ozone Day

Signs of progress were slow to come at first because CFC-derived elements can drift above the Earth for decades, but the size of the hole over Antarctica peaked in 2008 and it has been going down ever since.

The United Nations established September 16 as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer back in 1994, and today there is a lot to celebrate. Here’s the happy recap for Ozone Day 2019 from the UN:

“The latest Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion completed in 2018, shows that, as a result, parts of the ozone layer have recovered at a rate of 1-3% per decade since 2000. At projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone will heal completely by the 2030s. The Southern Hemisphere will follow in the 2050s and Polar Regions by 2060.”

But wait, there’s more:

“Ozone layer protection efforts have also contributed to the fight against climate change by averting an estimated 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, from 1990 to 2010.”

The Ozone Layer & Climate Change

That figure of 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2010 averted by a strong protective shield is the good news.

The bad news is that the Montreal Protocol enabled the replacement of CFCs with an alternative group of gasses, HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons).

By the turn of the century, HFCs were recognized as extremely powerful greenhouse gasses that would also need to be eliminated. To complicate matters, HFCs are were also becoming more popular in a warming climate, due to the increased demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.

And now for the good news. In October 2016, almost 200 countries including the US agreed to a series of steps to reduce HFCs by more than 80% within 30 years, beginning in 2019.

The White House, under former President Obama, issued an explainer about the agreement to mark the occasion of its signing:

“This global deal will avoid more than 80 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050 – equivalent to more than a decade of emissions from the entire U.S. economy – and could avoid up to 0.5°C of warming by the end of the century. It reflects a significant contribution towards achieving the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C.”

And Now For The Bad News

The US EPA was a bit different under President Obama than it is today. The agency was prepared to act before the ink dried on the global agreement.

EPA deployed the authority of its SNAP (Significant New Alternatives Policy) program to prohibit HFCs where less harmful alternatives were available. The agency also tightened up its rules for managing ozone-depleting refrigerants, and applied those stricter requirements to HFCs.

And now for the bad news. The Trump* administration revisited the SNAP program, and in 2018 proposed rolling back the new rules for HFCs under a narrow interpretation of the Clean Air Act.

I know, right? Shocker!

Onward Together

And now for the good news. The proposed new rules went into regulatory limbo after business groups objected, including stakeholders in the refrigeration and auto manufacturing sectors.

Meanwhile, attorneys general in a coalition of states have sued to stop the rollback. That includes New York State, which is forging ahead with enforcement of the 2016 rules.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation is holding a workshop later this month to prepare supermarkets and related industry groups for the changeover. As part of the pitch, state officials and the nonprofit North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council will be focusing on energy efficiency and other financial incentives for switching to new refrigeration technology.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to NASRC for more details on that, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the 2016 White House announcement on HFCs was front-loaded with a heavy load of private sector involvement, hinging on the idea that technology improvements are a win-win for job creation and economic growth.

With that in mind, take a look at the rapid changeover in the global renewable energy revolution, over the past few years, from a policy driven phenomenon to a market-driven (and market-driving) one. From that perspective, there is plenty of room for saving the planet from catastrophic climate change.

Leading US companies have been blowing the renewable horn ever since the run-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Today, the business case for renewable energy practically makes itself. Regardless of federal energy policy, the renewable energy market is pushing policy at the state level, even in states where policy makers have long turned a deaf ear to clean power advocates.

Sure, it would be nice to have your Commander-in-Chief on your side when it comes to saving life on Earth as we know it, but here in the US the dollar talks, the rest walk. The US coal sector is already in free-fall, and natural gas is starting to lose its grip on new power plant construction. Gas is also under threat from the growing building electrification movement.

As for oil, geopolitics is once again rearing its ugly head. With last week’s devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, prices have nowhere to go but up — even as the cost of renewable-sourced electricity keeps going down.

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*Developing story.

Image: Ozone hole over the Antarctic maxes out in 2008, via NASA. 
 

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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