Looking back at the rapid global response to ozone depletion is a lesson in political, ecological and industrial perseverance, with historical implications for today’s sluggish international efforts to confront climate change. On the surface, these stories start similarly, with the recognition that certain atmospheric emissions drive previously unforeseen processes that threaten environmental health on a global scale.
In the 1970s scientists identified the leading culprit in ozone depletion as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, widely used as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, at the time heralded for their non-toxicity and chemical inertness. Unfortunately, this inertness contributed to the problem: they don’t react or break down until reaching the upper atmosphere, where, when struck by UV light, they set off a chain reaction of ozone degradation.
Identification of the problem and concern on the part of scientists, environmentalists and diplomats wasn’t enough to elicit meaningful action. Key players in industry denied that CFCs were to blame and lobbied against action to ban or phase them out, which meant we were stuck with the CFCs already released, stuck with the ever-thinning ozone layer that they contributed to, and stuck in our ways of producing more and more each year. Looking back, it sounds all too similar to the conundrum we find ourselves in addressing climate change today.
After industry developed a viable alternative to CFCs, they quickly changed their tune, and all players came to the bargaining table with remarkable effectiveness. The Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer and subsequent efforts were so successful that this globally galvanizing issue has mostly faded from the memories of environmental activists.
Today, with climate change now at the forefront of the international environmental docket, we would be wise to look to the success of confronting ozone depletion for inspiration in tackling climate change, but foolhardy to think that it would be as simple.
At this point the scientific community stands in near unity behind the claims that human actions drive climate change, much of the public has mobilized behind the cause and more and more lawmakers are beginning to show a willingness to take action. But, as with the fight against ozone depletion, this will require industry to get behind the issue and innovate toward solutions.
With ozone depletion, companies simply needed to replace production of one class of chemicals (CFCs) with another (HFCs, the fact that these are extremely potent greenhouse gases is a story for another time), allowing them to continue to operate in familiar markets. Unfortunately, an oil company getting behind the push for climate action would be in for an existential crisis. Does the company rebrand more generically as an “energy” company and begin to innovate toward less carbon-intensive technologies, or does it stick to fossil fuels and watch its share of the energy market continue to shrink?
Until industry can further bring down the cost and widen the availability of solar, wind and other alternatives through continued innovation, its powerful voice will remain conspicuously absent from the discussion — for its own survival.
There’s great optimism over the political momentum from the recent Paris summit, but innovative commercial solutions are not yet fully scalable. So, 30 years after international agreement over the Montreal Protocol, all eyes return to industry once again for solutions to a global environmental crisis.
Reuben Hudson is a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry at Colby College in Waterville.