Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 23 September 2012
“Why don’t the greenhouse gases escape through the Ozone Hole?”
The misperception of the TV viewer in this cartoon (which first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio, United States, a few years ago) is more common that you’d imagine.
In recent years, as climate change rose up in the news agenda and the public’s concerns, I have met many people – from different educational and cultural backgrounds – who confused or conflated the two issues.
I once listened to a senior Lankan civil servant saying in a public speech that the ozone hole was “letting in the Sun’s heat that, in turn, was warming up our atmosphere”. He could have been forgiven – but as the then head of our environmental agency, he should have known better.
For sure, there is considerable common ground — or, in this case, common air! Ozone depletion and climate change are both atmospheric problems. Both built up separately for many decades before emerging as global environmental concerns in the 1980s. The two are linked — but ozone depletion is not a direct cause of climate change.
In fact, the relationship between ozone depletion and global warming is complex, nuanced and still being fully understood. Some experts call it a ‘Tango in the Atmosphere’. Ozone affects climate, and climate affects ozone.
“Ozone depletion and climate change are two distinct problems but as they both modify global cycles, they cannot be totally separated. There are still many uncertainties concerning the relations between the two processes,” says the UN Environment Programme on its GRID Arendal website (for details, see http://tiny.cc/O3CC).
But at least we now know enough to prevent responses to one problem making the other one worse.
As we discussed last week, ozone depletion was the original atmospheric problem. When scientists confirmed the life-threatening threat, governments responded resolutely: first with the Vienna Convention of 1985 and, two years later, with its legally binding instrument, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.
A quarter century on, the latter is universally ratified by 197 countries, and North-South co-operation has phased out the production and use of 98% of the culprit chemicals. If current trends continue, the damaged ozone layer will be restored to its natural levels around 2070.
The inter-governmental response to global warming, in contrast, has been weighed down by politics and commerce. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted in 1992, acquired its own Kyoto Protocol in 1997. However, curbing greenhouse gases – those that trap the Sun’s heat and warm up the planet – has been far more contentious from the start.
By twist of fate, some ozone damaging chemicals also happen to be powerful greenhouse gases. So getting rid of them not only protects the ozone layer but also combats climate change. A double benefit.
In 2007, a group of scientists quantified the climate benefits of the ozone treaty. They found that since 1990, it has helped remove from the atmosphere an equivalent of 135 billion tons of Carbon Dioxide. This has probably delayed global warming by seven to 12 years, they argued. (See: http://www.pnas.org/content/104/12/4814.abstract)
The Montreal Protocol and Kyoto Protocol have not always been so complementary. As the two treaties evolved on parallel tracks during the 1990s, a few experts foresaw their paths crossing in the future.
Physicist Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, first head of the Montreal Protocol Unit (now renamed as National Ozone Unit) at Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Environment, was among the first to draw attention to this aspect.
As the Ministry’s Chief Technical Advisor in the 1990s, Dr. Ratnasiri also represented Sri Lanka at meetings of the UNFCCC and became familiar with the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol. This macro view enabled him to identify the apparent conflict between Montreal and Kyoto Protocols.
“In the Montreal Protocol, a chemical named HFC is promoted as a substitute for CFCs as it (HFC) has no ozone depleting potential. But in the Kyoto Protocol, HFC use was to be controlled because of its global warming potential,” he recalls.
At a meeting in Geneva in June 1998, Dr Ratnasiri circulated a paper titled “Implications of the Kyoto Protocol on the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol”, and urged further investigations.
He says: “A few large countries didn’t like a small country making such a proposal, but the majority welcomed my idea. Subsequently, this became a regular Agenda Item in both MP and KP meetings. A special study group comprising representatives of both protocols studied the matter, and came out with a detailed report.”
This impending conflict was not spotted by others because in most countries, different delegations attended the ozone and climate treaty meetings.
The ozone and climate treaty synergy is now being pursued in earnest. In July 2009, leaders of the world’s eight biggest industrialised nations agreed to voluntarily reduce their HFC emissions. In August 2009, Mexico, Canada and the US agreed to work together under the Montreal Protocol to phase down the use of HFCs.
Countries have also accelerated phasing out Hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs) — chemicals designed to replace the old, more ozone-damaging CFCs – in the main for climate benefits.
Meanwhile, climate campaigners are revisiting how the ozone treaty was negotiated in the mid 1980s to identify strategies for accelerating the rather slow-moving climate talks.
Shattered Sky, a new one-hour documentary by independent filmmakers Steve Dorst and Dan Evans, reminds us why this triumph in international cooperation is a model for addressing global climate change.
The film, which premiered on US public television this month, tells the story of how — during geopolitical turmoil, a recession, and two consecutive Republican administrations — America led the world to solve the biggest environmental crisis ever seen.
It then challenges American viewers: “Today, will we dare to do the same on energy and climate?”
Shattered Sky traces the unfolding drama of the ozone crisis through archival footage, as well as interviews with key players. Among them is former US Secretary of State George Shultz, who looks back on the ozone treaty as “one his proudest accomplishments” in the Reagan Administration.
Comparing the ozone and climate crises in a recent interview, filmmaker Steve Dorst said: “The climate problem is more complex, since it’s inextricably linked to our global energy infrastructure. But people forget how revolutionary and ubiquitous CFCs were at the time. They were critical components in billions of dollars of equipment around the world. They ushered in our modern way of life since they were essential for refrigeration, advanced solvents and air conditioning. The ozone crisis was also extraordinarily complex.”
Dorst finds it “incredibly tragic” that climate and energy are not high on the agenda of the US presidential candidates. He has launched an online petition calling on President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney “to rise above petty electoral politics and take inspiration from the ozone story.”
Shattered Sky – Advance Teaser (released in Sep 2011):