What the healing of the ozone hole teaches us about tackling the climate crisis

The ozone hole is healing, thanks to cooperation between countries and the implementation of environmental agreements. An example we can learn from.

  • The UN has announced that the ozone hole is closing up.
  • Above the Arctic it will be healed by 2045, for Antarctica it will take a bit longer.
  • The result was achieved thanks to cooperation between countries and the implementation of environmental agreements.

The ozone hole is closing up. The historic announcement arrived from the United Nations (UN) in a report titled Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion 2022, which takes stock of the environmental challenge humanity started to tackle in the 1980s. After various hints were made in recent years, the good news was finally and definitively announced: by 2045, the ozone layer above the Arctic will be fully healed, returning to pre-1980 levels.

hole in the ozone layer
A visualisation of the hole in the ozone layer by NASA © Newsmakers/Getty Images

The ozone hole, in simple terms

The ozone layer is the region of the atmosphere where most of its ozone is concentrated. Ozone captures and absorbs part of the energy that arrives directly from the Sun, particularly the ultraviolet radiation that is harmful to life on Earth. The ozone layer is thus a vital shield for living beings. Because of air circulation over the planet, this gas mostly accumulates at higher altitudes and over the poles.

It is precisely by studying the poles, especially the South Pole, that scientists discovered that this layer was growing thinner year by year, and thus the expression “ozone hole” was coined. Without the shielding of the ozone layer, there would be an increased risk of skin cancers, faster skin ageing, and the immune system of all living beings would be altered, due to the upsurge in harmful solar radiation.

Why the ozone hole is closing

The first person to talk about the “ozone hole” was US scientist Frank Sherwood Rowland, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995 for his work on atmospheric chemistry. His best-known work is the discovery, in 1974, that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Further research followed and, in 1985, another scientist called Joseph Charles Farman confirmed the terrible discover. The ozone layer above the South Pole was disappearing. In the same year, during the Vienna Convention, the United Nations recognised the crucial importance of preventing damage to the stratospheric ozone layer.

International conferences, treatises, and new regulations soon followed. After just two years, in 1987, 46 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, which enforced the progressive reduction of CFC manufacturing. These potent greenhouse gases, with up to 7,000 times more heat trapping potential than CO2, were used for a long time as refrigerants, solvents, and aerosol propellants.

In 1988, the phenomenon started to also appear above the North Pole. This discover drove over 90 countries to agree to suspending production of CFCs in 1990. In over 30 years, another historic step forward for fighting ozone depletion (and climate change more generally) was the banning of another dangerous chemical compound: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases 14,000 times more potent than CO2. The agreement was reached by the same countries that signed the Montreal Protocol, during the 28th meeting of the parties in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2016.

The ozone hole and climate change

Today, researchers tell us that the ozone hole above the Arctic will close and the ozone layer will return to pre-1980 levels. This is set to happen between 2040 and 2045, whereas the process will take longer over Antarctica (the date mentioned is 2066). Despite the good news, the UN notes that while the ozone layer in the upper regions of the stratosphere is healing, the same thing has so far not been happening in the lower layers. This is a sign that our efforts to combat this problem need to continue.

The hole in the ozone layer is not considered a primary contributing factor for global heating. However, many of the substances responsible for ozone depletion, such as CFCs and HFCs, contribute to the increase of the Earth’s surface temperatures. Moreover, the ban on hydrofluorocarbons only happened recently. As we know, CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas responsible for global heating, and thus any action performed for the good of the atmosphere – including actions to combat ozone depletion – cannot but have beneficial effects on the mitigation of the effects of climate change.

If enforced, global environmental agreements do work

When the ozone hole was being debated, there were plenty of negationists: various scientists and institutions believed that the phenomenon was driven exclusively by natural causes, such as volcanic eruptions. However, in-depth studies proved the decisive role of man-made chemicals until, thanks to the CFC production ban, MIT announced in 2016 that the ozone hole was some 4 million square kilometres smaller than it had been in 2000 when depletion peaked.

For this reason, the news that the ozone layer is healing is proof that environmental agreements can work if they are properly enforced. Thanks to this experience, we can draw a parallel with the ongoing climate crisis. In 1990, after a large number of countries decided to collaborate at a global level, it took another ten years for the environmental problem in question to reach its peak. In short, there was no certainty that the goal would be achieved, but the countries that stopped producing CFCs listened to scientists’ warnings.

signal of hope for the future: the next targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases and carbon neutrality can be reached only when all countries start to fully cooperate, implementing the agreements they have entered into. It would be worth treasuring this experience before the next COP.

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