By Donella Meadows
–August 8, 1987–
There’s an old joke that goes like this: if you think the prospect of the end of the world is likely to cause policy changes in Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, or Moscow, you have obviously never been to any of those places.
In fact there is an environmental threat right now that could be of “end of the world” proportions — the depletion of atmospheric ozone. Contrary to the joke, hard decisions about ozone are being made in many national capitals this summer. Furthermore, those decisions are part of an international process which, if it works, will be one of the most far-reaching and foresighted examples of international cooperation our fractious world has ever produced.
The alarm about the ozone problem was first sounded in 1974 by F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina of the University of California. They calculated that chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used for aerosol propellants, refrigerants, and many industrial purposes, could rise to the stratosphere and set off a chain of reactions that destroy ozone, a gas normally found in the high atmosphere.
The loss of stratospheric ozone would be more than a chemical curiosity. Ozone screens out much ultraviolet radiation from the sun. If that radiation reached the earth’s surface, it would not only cause skin cancers in humans, it would interfere with their vision and their immune systems. It would harm most plants, most animals exposed to the sunshine, and much of the life in the oceans.
Quite a price to pay for spray-on shaving cream.
After five years of politicking by environmental groups, the U.S. banned the use of CFCs in aerosols in 1979. That ban reduced world CFC output by 25%. Since then other uses of CFCs have increased — for coolants in car air-conditioners, for solvents to clean electronic circuit boards, for making plastic foams of the sort you find in hot-drink cups, egg cartons, and fast-food hamburger packages. About a million tons of CFCs are produced each year, most of which end up, sooner or later, in the atmosphere.
Slowly, sometimes glacially, urged by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), the world’s nations have been learning about and working on the ozone problem. UNEP called a meeting in March 1985, which produced the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer. “It was a dreadful piece of verbiage,” says Konrad von Moltke, an environmentalist who has been in the thick of the battle. “It was an agreement to disagree.” The USA, Canada, and Scandinavia, which already had aerosol bans, pushed other countries to adopt them too. Some countries wanted strict limits on all production of CFCs. Others with major CFC industries, like France, Germany, and Britain, were not convinced there was a problem.
However just as the Vienna Convention was being signed, news broke about the “ozone hole” over Antarctica. The British survey station at Halley Bay had recorded a steady loss of stratospheric ozone there since 1977, but the measurements were so unbelievable that they had been discounted. When similar losses were detected over Argentina, the findings were finally published. They were quickly confirmed by NASA satellite data. Ozone above Antarctica in October, the beginning of the Antarctic summer, was depleted by 40-60%. There were smaller, but significant, declines all over the globe.
The ozone hole shocked the scientific world. It suggested that ozone was decreasing more rapidly than anyone had expected. It started a terrific burst of research, environmental activism, and international meetings.
The USA broke the ice last November when it stopped advocating an aerosol ban and started suggesting a 95% reduction in all CFC production. (In spite of Interior Secretary Donald Hodel’s ignorant remark about sunglasses as the answer to the ozone problem, the U.S. State Department has taken a leadership role in the negotiations). The World Resources Institute organized a seminar to update European environmental groups and get them involved. German environmentalists, including von Moltke, used a national election to pressure all political parties to advocate a CFC production ban. “The trick was to identify where the pressure point was at each time, and then to organize pressure there,” says von Moltke, who has spent a lot of time in the past two years crossing the ocean, following pressure points.
A breakthrough came in Geneva last March, when Mustafa Tolba, the director of UNEP, proposed a daring three-stage plan — first freeze CFC production at current levels, four years later reduce by 20%, four years after that reduce by another 30%. “No one expected a proposal that strong,” says von Moltke, “but no one shot it down.”
The “freeze-20-30” plan was still afloat at a meeting in Brussels in June, and barring last minute snags it will be signed in Montreal in September by most if not all of the major producers and consumers of CFCs, East and West.
Konrad von Moltke is not ready to rejoice yet. He and others are keeping up the pressure, and he knows that plenty of work remains after the agreement is signed, to enforce the reductions. And no one is sure that freeze-20-30 will be enough to solve the problem. But he says, “I’m amazed. The agreement goes beyond anything I could have imagined 12 months ago. I figured a 30% reduction was the best we could hope for. It’s been a long time since I’ve been overtaken by events like that.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987