How the world came together to save the ozone layer

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In the 1980s, the world came together to ban CFCs, widely used chemicals that destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere.

“The food was a disaster. Uncultivable crops,” says Paul Newman. “If you have so much, if you’re sterilizing the UV rays that flood the Earth, how are you going to grow crops for a few billion people on Earth?”

Countries lined up and signed the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an agreement that marked the end of CFCs. Can we use that template to end climate change?

today, On point: Fixing the ozone layer and lessons for solving the climate crisis.


Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Co-Chair of the Scientific Evaluation Panel to the Montreal Protocol.

David Victor, Professor of Innovation and Public Policy in Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. Co-Director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative. Author of Fixing the Climate: Strategy and Climate Policy Implementation for an Uncertain World.

Transcript: How the world banned CFCs

Meghna Chakraborty: This is for you children of the 80s. You are my people. All that big hair, spandex, those scratches, some absolutely epic music. And, unfortunately, this:

Michael Resnick: I’m Dr. Michael Resnick, with some bad news about ozone. This medical news update is brought to you by Advil, the advanced medicine for pain. The ozone layer protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But a recent report concluded that this layer is rapidly thinning due to trace gases. Basically, CFCs in consumer products.

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Chakraborty: You remember that. I’m doing. The sudden realization that the ozone layer was in danger, which most of us had never heard of before 1985. Skin cancer rates will rise. Ecosystems will collapse. It was an existential threat—a very urgent one, and I was one of those 10-year-olds who refused to crush a piece of Styrofoam for fear of releasing more CFCs into the air.

However, the story begins even further back. With two scientists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California, Irvine.

Sherwood Rowland: This started in 1972, 1973 on the part of a laboratory chemist – myself – curious about what would happen to the CFC gases that were now found to be essentially ubiquitous in the atmosphere. … So when Mario Molina joined my research group in 1973 —

Mario Molina: We decided to ask a question where we realized that some chemicals released into the environment could cause a serious global environmental problem.

Chakrabarti: Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. First developed in the 1920s, and by mid-century, used almost everywhere. In aerosol sprays, as blowing agents for foams and packaging materials, as solvents and refrigerants. Molina and Rowland discovered that these chemicals can reach the upper atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer, which provides vital protection from the sun’s excess ultraviolet rays. They published their results in 1974. Not much happened. But they knew this was serious. Rowland’s wife, Joan, spoke about this in a PBS documentary.

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John Rowland: [Sherwood], who is my husband – a very good husband, I might add – came home one night and I was lying in bed reading, and I said, how’s it going? And he said, it’s going very well. The only trouble is, I think it’s the end of the world.

Roland decided to take action. He remained loud and public throughout the 1970s.

Rowland: To avoid these hazards, man cannot continue to use these chemicals ever-increasingly. Instead, we need to rapidly reduce the amount of these substances released into the atmosphere.

Other scientists soon confirmed their findings. In 1985, a team of British scientists including Jonathan Shanklin discovered something terrifying: a giant hole in the ozone over Antarctica. Here’s Shanklin from a Nature podcast:

Newscaster: Every spring, a hole in the ozone develops over Antarctica … Satellite images show that a hole opens for several months during spring in Antarctica.

Shanklin: When we first looked at the data it was very clear that we had ozone depletion, I think that’s probably the term we used – ozone depletion over Antarctica – and it wasn’t until you got the satellite. Oh, the pictures you can see, there’s a hole in it.

Not long after, the United States sent a team led by Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to Antarctica.

Susan Solomon: From the time the ozone hole was discovered in 1985, to 1987, when you first had one station measuring total ozone, it shows something strange. It was an intense period of activity for many of us in the scientific community. And we were able to measure many of the important chemicals involved in the chemical disturbances I talked about. And they all pointed the same way.

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Chakrabarty: It was leading to man-made ozone depletion. So, faced with an impending disaster, countries around the world acted. In 1987, more than 30 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement focused on phasing out harmful CFCs.

It was a historic agreement. To date, as then-Secretary of State George Shultz noted to PBS, the most successful international environmental agreement of all time.

George Schultz: When all that was done and the Montreal Protocol was signed, I remember President Reagan saying, “What a great achievement.”

Chakrabarty: That was the first step, but it wasn’t long before all the countries of the world signed on. An environmental and diplomatic success. Signed 35 years ago, the Montreal Protocol did what it was supposed to do – countries phased out CFCs and the ozone layer is on the road to recovery.

Now the ozone layer is about to recover.

UN report: In a new report, a UN-sponsored scientific panel has confirmed that the phase-out of nearly 99% of banned ozone-depleting substances has succeeded in protecting the ozone layer, and that it has significantly restored the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere. Causes to condition. and reduced human exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays.

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