Celebrating the Planet-Saving Ozone Treaty’s 30th Birthday

Ozone layer is billions of years old. The treaty that saved it turned 30 this September.
Ozone layer, billions of years old, Ozone treaty, turns 30 today
Ozone layer, billions of years old, Ozone treaty, turns 30 today
Credit: United Nations Environment Programme

Post co-authored with Alex Hillbrand

Two billion years ago, blue-green algae floating atop Earth’s primordial oceans had an interesting idea.

Basking in warm sunlight, they began to convert ocean water and CO2 from the atmosphere into food. At the same time, they started making oxygen—a byproduct of what we’d come to call photosynthesis.

For the first time, oxygen (O2) became plentiful in Earth’s atmosphere. As it spread outward and upward, a few oxygen molecules ran into powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays coming from the sun, splitting them in half and creating a new molecule—ozone, or O3.

With that, the ozone layer was born. The ozone created by UV rays had the serendipitous property of keeping those very UV rays from bombarding the earth’s surface. Life could then emerge from the oceans and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today we celebrate World Ozone Day, commemorating the success of the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that protects the ozone layer—and the climate. The Protocol was agreed to 30 years ago today in Montreal. 

It’s been a remarkable success. Every nation on earth now belongs to the Montreal Protocol, and together they have cut global production of close to 100 man-made ozone-depleting substances, eliminating nearly 99% of the damaging emissions.

The ozone layer is now clearly recovering, though it will still take decades for the atmosphere to work off the build-up of long-lifetime ozone-depleters.

As a bonus, the Montreal Protocol has done more than anything else to reduce climate change, because many ozone-depleting chemicals double as powerful greenhouse gases.

That work is not done.  Last year, more than 150 countries came together in Kigali, Rwanda, to amend the Montreal Protocol to address the climate damage caused by replacement chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are safe for ozone, and are less damaging to the climate than the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) they replaced. But HFCs are still potent heat-trapping pollutants, warming the climate thousands of times more than CO2, pound for pound.

The Kigali Amendment sets in motion an 85% reduction in HFC use worldwide over the coming decades. NRDC estimates that the amendment will avoid HFC use equivalent to more than 70 billion tons of CO2 by 2050. That’s equal to about two years’ worth of the entire planet’s fossil-fuel based CO2 emissions.

But the success of the nascent agreement is not a sure thing.

In the U.S., President Trump’s proposed budget calls for drastic cuts to support for the Montreal Protocol’s funding arm, the Multilateral Fund, which assists developing countries in replacing the ozone-depleting and climate-damaging chemicals. The U.S. has been a mainstay of the Multilateral Fund since its inception in the early 1990s. 

The administration’s proposed funding cuts would hold up developing countries’ progress in phasing out ozone-damaging chemicals like R-22, a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) found in many refrigeration and air conditioning systems across the world. With support, many developing countries hope to adopt climate-friendly alternatives to R-22 directly, leapfrogging over the environmental and economic cost of HFCs.

Fortunately, Congress is signaling its disagreement with Trump’s myopia. NRDC is working with industry and champions in the Senate to keep the Montreal Protocol funded this year and beyond, and deep in the weeds of this fall’s federal budget battles, things are looking hopeful.

U.S. progress in phasing down HFCs is facing another threat. In August, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation limiting use of the most harmful HFCs.  NRDC disagrees, and next week we’ll file a petition for the full 10-member court to rehear the case and get HFC reductions back on track.

This November, the countries that are parties to, and partners in, the Montreal Protocol head back to the city of its birth to celebrate 30 years of success and to work on next steps. The Montreal meeting will be a chance to revel in the many ozone victories and celebrate the “ozone heroes” that made that work possible.

The week before that big gathering, a smaller set of countries will meet to hammer out the next steps on funding the ongoing HCFC phase-out and the start of HFC cuts in developing countries. In Montreal, the parties will agree on a funding package for the next three years.

It’s nitty gritty work, but these guidelines and funding commitments will undergird the success of the Montreal Protocol and the Kigali Amendment as they move forward.

At 30, the Montreal Protocol isn’t resting on its laurels.

Here in the U.S., NRDC is fighting to keep ozone and climate progress on track during the Trumpocene. It’s a struggle.  

But if the algae can do it, so can we. 

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