Happy Birthday to the Ozone Layer

I’m headed up to Canada next week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the world’s most successful environmental treaty – the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Most people know that we’ve gotten rid of the ozone-depleting chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (“CFCs”). But very few people know how we did it.

It’s actually a remarkable story, and one of NRDC’s greatest achievements. On a personal note, I’ll be receiving awards next week from EPA and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in honor of NRDC’s role.

But there is something more important here than celebrations and awards. Now we are turning to face the crisis of global warming. And as we do that, there are lessons to be learned, and hope to be drawn, from our success in saving the ozone layer.

Over the next few days, I’m going to tell the ozone story and what it means for global warming. Today, I’ll talk about how we found out about CFCs and their threat to the ozone layer, and how NRDC helped push and pull us to agreement on the Montreal treaty and the ozone protection provisions of the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Tomorrow, I’ll focus on what we still have to do to finish the job of protecting the ozone layer – by eliminating chemicals called methyl bromide and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). And finally, I’ll share the lessons I draw from this story for the fight against global warming. (For those who want to read ahead, click here.)

So first, what’s the ozone layer, and what does it do for us?

Ozone is a molecule made up of three atoms of oxygen. Normal oxygen consists of two oxygen atoms.) Down here on the ground, ozone is formed from car and power-plant exhaust and is toxic to breathe. But a natural layer of ozone developed in the stratosphere – 6 to 10 miles overhead – over millions of years.

Ozone has the happy property of screening out a lot of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In this way the ozone layer protects us from skin cancer, cataracts, and other diseases. In fact, the ozone layer made it possible for life as we know it to evolve on land.

 Ozone is a pretty unstable molecule. It is constantly being destroyed and re-made by solar radiation. CFCs and related chemicals upset the natural stratospheric balance by increasing the rate at which ozone is destroyed. This lets more of the dangerous UV radiation reach the Earth’s surface, raising our risks of skin cancer and other illnesses.

How did we get into this mess, and how did we get out of it?

In 1974, two atmospheric scientists, F. Sherwood Roland and Mario Molina, discovered that CFCs could weaken the ozone layer. Millions of pounds of CFCs – then used mainly as propellants in aerosol spray cans – were being released into the air each year. They were virtually indestructible in the lower atmosphere. But Roland and Molina, in work that later earned them the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, found that when CFCs reached the stratosphere and were hit by ultraviolet radiation, they broke apart, freeing chlorine atoms that attack ozone and turn it into ordinary oxygen.

Rowland and Molina felt a special responsibility to get their discovery out beyond the dry scientific journals – to let the responsible government agencies and the public know what they’d found. NRDC also saw the danger and took on the challenge (You can read [here] what my colleagues did to help publicize Roland’s and Molina’s findings, to pursue federal and state bans on CFC aerosols, and to jumpstart international cooperation.) Alarmed by the news, the public shunned aerosol products, and sales dropped rapidly. Eventually, the EPA banned nearly all CFC aerosols in 1978.

Losing, then finding, the way forward.

After the U.S. aerosol ban in 1978, there was a general misconception that the problem had been solved. To be sure, the ban reduced CFC production and emissions in this country. A few other countries – notably Canada and the Scandinavian nations – also banned CFC aerosols, but other European countries and Japan refused to follow suit.

Moreover, growing amounts of CFCs were still being used in refrigerators and air conditioners and in industrial applications. And other ozone-depleting chemicals, including fire-protection chemicals called halons and other industrial solvents, were also being used in growing amounts. For all these reasons, President Carter’s EPA published official findings in 1980 that CFCs still posed a danger.

In 1981, however, Jimmy Carter handed over the White House to Ronald Reagan, who was fiercely opposed to environmental regulation. Nonetheless, NRDC kept up the pressure for action. In 1984 – after Reagan’s disastrous first appointment to head the EPA resigned – I filed a lawsuit based on EPA’s findings of danger in 1980. Those findings, I argued, triggered a requirement under the Clean Air Act that EPA take action to restrict the non-aerosol uses of CFCs.

In those days (much like now), ordinarily we’d get no response from the EPA and we’d have to fight it out in the courts. But in this case, I received an interesting and unusual response: EPA wanted to negotiate.

It turned out that a small group of career civil servants – backed by the one original Reagan appointee who had not resigned in disgrace – were alarmed by what they saw and were determined to do something about it. So NRDC and EPA settled the lawsuit with an agreement on a Stratospheric Ozone Protection Plan that set a schedule for completing a risk assessment and building consensus on further action among businesses, environmental organizations, and governments.

The EPA risk assessment had a dramatic impact. Looking over the next century, EPA demonstrated that the ozone layer would be badly weakened under the assault of steadily rising CFC production, causing hundreds of millions of skin cancer cases and millions of deaths in the United States alone. The global toll of death and disease would be many times larger.

The shock of the Antarctic “ozone hole.”

Meanwhile, British scientists and NASA satellites discovered the Antarctic “ozone hole” – a near-complete loss of stratospheric ozone over Antarctica every September, when sunlight returns to the South Pole. Further research soon proved that the chlorine from CFCs was the cause. I called it “a genuine global emergency” in Congressional hearings. The strong visual image of the Antarctic ozone hole (link here) increased the public’s sense of urgency.

Starting in 1985, I took part in meetings between governments, companies, and environmental organizations to build consensus on further domestic and international action. Here’s one anecdote from those meetings:

At one point, a Dupont representative long known for fighting CFC controls presented a paper showing that Dupont (and other companies) had investigated numerous other compounds. Some could work, he said, as alternative refrigerants, solvents, or foam-blowing agents. But they were more expensive to make, and none could compete against lower-cost CFCs. He thought he’d proved there were no practical alternatives. But I and others participants drew a different conclusion. Didn’t his paper show that there werealternatives? And wouldn’t they be competitive if CFCs were eliminated? Suddenly, the problem that companies said had no solution had plenty of solutions.

Attitudes began to change. At an international conference in 1986, the head of the U.S. industry’s trade association broke with the past and called for some limits on CFC growth. Citing a New Yorkerarticle on the ozone layer, he said he could no longer defend his industry’s position to his children at the dinner table.

NRDC’s phaseout plan.

Speaking at the same conference, I proposed a bolder plan. On strictly environmental and public health grounds, I said, we ought to ban CFCs immediately. But it had to be recognized that the CFC producers and users would need some time to develop and market alternatives. So I proposed a worldwide phase-out of CFCs in ten years, with an 85 percent reduction in the first five years. (Read my article in the Amicus Journal [pdf file])

In the following months, I testified before Senate and House committees and worked with champions in Congress – Senators Max Baucus and the late John Chafee, and Representatives Henry Waxman and Sherwood Boehlert – to write proposed legislation to phase out CFCs in the United States. Other congressional leaders, including Senator Al Gore, called for U.S. diplomatic leadership to forge an effective international ozone treaty. With my colleague David Wirth, I represented NRDC as a nongovernmental observer when international negotiations resumed in 1985. 

 Despite the Reagan administration’s anti-regulatory bias, EPA Administrator Lee Thomas and Secretary of State George Shultz supported a strong U.S. leadership position in the treaty talks, advocating a 90 percent phase-out of CFCs over 10 years. Their position had some unlikely allies. Attorney-General Edwin Meese felt that American companies would be at a disadvantage without a treaty, because NRDC’s lawsuit was likely to force a phase-out in the U.S. even if there was no international agreement.

The counter-revolution

Opposed to the EPA-State phase-out plan, the CFC lobby went to other parts of the Reagan administration for help. Officials in the Office of Management and Budget began a closed-door late-night inquisition questioning every aspect of EPA’s risk assessment and the phase-out policy. One official suggested that skin cancer was a “self-inflicted” disease.

 Late in the game, I was invited to appear before the OMB inquisitors. When one said their purpose was to decide U.S. policy for the treaty talks, I reminded him that we already had an established policy in favor of phasing out these chemicals. The next day I made a round of phone calls to the officials that were present, telling each of them that if they backed away from the phase-out policy, I would let the papers know exactly who did it, and why.

For the several weeks, the direction of U.S. policy remained in doubt. The turning point came when Interior Secretary Donald Hodel urged President Reagan to abandon the idea of an international treaty and rely instead on a policy of “personal protection” in which people would be encouraged to wear hats and sunglasses. I broke the story of the “Ray-Ban Plan” to the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the TV networks picked it up the next day. Hodel became a laughingstock (see Herblock cartoon in NRDC’s Back from the Brink: How NRDC Helped Save the Ozone Layer), and the Reagan administration continued to push for a treaty.

With Administrator Thomas leading the final negotiations, consensus on the treaty came together in Montreal in September 1987. Twenty-four countries agreed to cut CFC production 50 percent over 10 years. The United States ratified the treaty, which was named for the city of its birth, the following year.

From half step to the full phaseout.

As the 1980s came to a close, NRDC kept pushing on three fronts for a rapid and complete CFC phase-out. Together with other environmental organizations, I helped negotiate agreements with several industries to hasten their transition from CFCs. One agreement with the auto repair industry created a standard for recycling CFCs when servicing car air conditioners, instead of letting them escape into the atmosphere.

Second, NRDC successfully pushed for an ozone protection amendment to the Clean Air Act. The new law, enacted in 1990, mandated the complete phase-out of CFCs and other powerful ozone-depleters. It established recycling requirements and a program to assure the safety of chemical substitutes. The new law even provided phase-out dates for a second generation of ozone-depleting chemicals called HCFCs.

Third, NRDC worked to strengthen the Montreal Protocol, an effort that led to the London Amendment of 1990, under which parties to the treaty agreed to completely phase out CFCs. Industrial nations and developing countries reached a precedent-setting schedule for phasing out the latter’s CFC production after a grace period of 10 extra years. They also set up a multilateral fund through which industrial countries would help developing nations cover the extra costs.

It did not go entirely smoothly. At one point, the first President Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, instructed his negotiators to reneg on the U.S.’s commitment to support the multilateral fund. I was on hand in Stockholm to get the news to the Washington Post and the New York Times. The administration quickly backed down. As a result, China, India, and other major developing countries joined Montreal Protocol and agreed to a full phase-out.

The phase-out schedule was further accelerated in 1992, when 87 countries agreed to ban CFC production by 1996. The 1992 amendment also added methyl bromide—an ozone-destroying pesticide—to the list of controlled chemicals. In 1997, countries agreed to phase out methyl bromide entirely by 2005, with limited exemptions for the most critical uses. Now there are more than 190 countries that have joined the Montreal Protocol.

With few exceptions, nations have met their phase-out commitments on time. At the 20-year mark, scientific experts report that the production of 95 percent of all ozone-depleting chemicals has been eliminated. Though it will take until late in this century, there’s a good chance that the Antarctic ozone hole will disappear and that the ozone layer will be healed worldwide.

As a side benefit, the CFC phaseout has been the most effective step yet taken to slow global warming. Because CFCs are heat-trapping gases, their virtual elimination has delayed the onset of global warming by approximately a dozen years.

But the job isn’t finished. Amid the 20th anniversary celebrations, there will be tough negotiations about U.S. exemptions for a pesticide called methyl bromide, and about a faster phase-out of chemicals called hydrochlorofluorocarbons (“HCFCs”). I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

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