Without a doubt, getting the world to agree on the exact steps necessary to tackle major environmental challenges is a difficult task. Although every country has its own interests to protect, environmental issues are usually global in nature, which necessitates some form of global response (whether it be unified or decentralized). Upon first glance, it would seem that global cooperation on the environment has not been effective so far.
But then again, we did have at least one major success which helped us avoid near planetary disaster and gives us reason for optimism on the prospects of future global cooperation: the Montreal Protocol.
These days, the Montreal Protocol is often relegated to a small sub-section in the chapter of a college environmental studies textbook. But in reality, it is perhaps one of the most important environmental treaties of all time. It was the first time all the countries in the world were able to agree on the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons.
Chlorofluorocarbons and the Depletion of the Ozone Layer
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) received attention over forty years ago when Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina published research suggesting that CFCs were eating away at the ozone layer. At the time, CFCs were common in household sprays, refrigerants, and solvents and chemical companies were pushing hard for their continued usage.
Unfortunately, if left unchecked, the proliferation of CFCs in the upper atmosphere would continue to destroy the ozone layer thus allowing increasing amounts of solar radiation to reach the Earth’s surface. The consequences of increasing amounts of UV radiation hitting the Earth’s surface would mean higher rates of skin cancer, blindness due to cataracts, and immune diseases.
It took nearly 15 years, but eventually governments around the world began to realize the seriousness the proliferation of CFCs presented for the world. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, and stipulated hard targets for the phase out of CFCs.
The Montreal Protocol: Optimism for the Future?
Since the signing of the Montreal Protocol, CFC usage has declined rapidly and the ozone layer is repairing itself gradually every year. Had this landmark treaty not be signed millions of people would have lost their lives due to complications associated with dangerous exposure to high levels of UV radiation.
The Montreal Protocol and the hole in the ozone layer don’t receive as much attention anymore. They are overshadowed by (now) more pressing issues such as climate change, urban expansion, and declining fish stocks.
But it would be a mistake to forget about the Montreal Protocol entirely. We should move forward from Montreal with a sense of optimism on what can be accomplished when countries can successfully work together to tackle pressing environmental issues.
The recent climate talks have managed to come up with targets on the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades. Hopefully by remembering the success of the Montreal Protocol we can remember that global cooperation is possible – we just have to be unified and progressive enough in our approach.
Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Cente: ozone layer hold snapshot in 2010.