You may have heard of the dangerous hole in the ozone layer. Have you wondered how it came to be? And how countries are trying to plug it? That is the story of the Montreal Protocol.
The disaster of CFCs
We all use refrigerators. The most important part of it is the refrigerant – the chemical that takes the heat away from it and leads to cooling. Up to the 1920s, most refrigerants were either explosive or toxic. In 1930, Thomas Midgley and Charles Kettering discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) did the job very well, and were safe and non-explosive.
Soon, CFCs were being manufactured on a massive scale as many other uses for them were found. However, safe disposal procedures were not instituted, and many tones of CFCs escaped into the atmosphere. As you may already know, CFCs react with ozone in the presence of sunlight and rob us of our protection from cancer-causing UV rays.
Countries begin to act
While some countries had begun phasing out CFCs, there would be a real impact only if all countries cooperated. A conference of 20 countries was held in Vienna immediately after the ozone hole was revealed. Discussions then spread over the next four years, to decide how much each country would agree to do to eliminate CFCs. The final agreement was made at Montreal on September 16, 1987 (now celebrated as World Ozone Day), because of which it is called the ‘Montreal Protocol’. The treaty aimed to eliminate global production of CFCs by 1996, so that the ozone hole would recover by 2050.
Unfortunately, the Protocol was fiercely resisted by many industries and poor countries. CFCs were cheap to manufacture, and replacing them was costly. September 16th is celebrated as World Ozone Day to commemorate the signing of the Montreal Protocol.
The triumph of will
However, governments recognized the seriousness of the problems. They passed tough laws which forced companies to abandon the use of CFCs. In 1992, the ‘Multilateral Fund’ was created, by which rich countries would provide money to poorer countries to switch to CFC alternativTriumph and tragedyes. Today the Protocol has been signed by all the 196 member countries of the United Nations.
The Protocol has provided for the monitoring of CFCs in the atmosphere regularly. The good news is that levels of all CFCs have stopped increasing, and levels of some have actually reduced. As of 1994, CFCs are no longer produced, except for special applications for which an alternative has yet to be found. In 1995, Rowland and Molino were given the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
It shows that when we put our heads together, the worst of our problems can be solved. In fact, Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations called the Montreal Protocol “the single most successful international agreement to date”!