By CBC Docs  

In August 1987, all 197 UN member states came together in Montreal to address one of the most urgent environmental issues of the 20th century: protecting the Earth’s ozone layer. The story is told in How We Saved the Planet: Ozone Hole, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye.

It begins in the 1920s, when American chemical engineer Thomas Midgley Jr. developed a group of chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs (known by the brand name Freon), which were non-toxic, non-flammable compounds that could be used as safer refrigerants. These “wonder chemicals” were first used commercially by companies like DuPont in the 1930s, and before long, CFCs had many uses, functioning as propellants (in bug spray and personal care products), solvents and foam-blowing agents.

In the early 1970s, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, two chemists from the University of California, Irvine, decided to find out where CFCs ended up once they were released into the atmosphere. They discovered that when CFCs reached very high altitudes, they were broken apart by the sun’s radiation. This released chlorine atoms, which would then start breaking down the ozone layer, the part of the Earth’s atmosphere that blocks most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. And the scale of the problem was evident.

In How We Saved the Planet: Ozone Hole, Rowland’s wife recounts how her husband responded when she asked how his research was going. “He said, ‘It’s going really well. The only trouble is, I think it’s the end of the world.’” Watch the video.

Rowland and Molina published their findings in 1974, warning of a potential skin cancer epidemic, the collapse of agriculture and the destruction of entire ecosystems.

At first, it seemed like nobody cared. After all, according to the documentary, the production of CFCs was an $8-billion industry, and they were found in hundreds of products. But by 1987, countries across the globe agreed to take action to tackle the problem.

What led the world mobilize in just over a decade? Here are some of the factors that lead what former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

The right time to get behind an environmental issue

The 1960s and ’70s were a time of political protest, with demonstrators voicing their opinions on issues like U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and advocating for civil rights. People were ready to stand up and demand action on matters that were important to them.

It was also a time of awakening about environmental issues. Rachel Carson’s bestselling book about the risks of pesticides, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. For the first time, the message was loud and clear: not all chemicals were good for you — or the planet. And on April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans gathered in public spaces to celebrate the world’s first Earth Day and demonstrate their support for environmental protection.

Mass media spread the message

While Rowland and Molina spoke out about their findings in the scientific community, the media brought the issue into the mainstream. In February 1975, the CFC threat was featured on the most-watched show in the United States, All in the Family. According to How We Save the Earth: Ozone Hole, after the episode aired, sales of hairspray and aerosol deodorant noticeably declined.

CFC-based aerosols were banned in the United States by 1978 (though they were still used in other applications until a total production ban was implemented in 1996).

A global problem prompted global cooperation

Robert (Bob) Watson, a NASA chemist who led the team monitoring the health of the ozone, brought together scientists from around the world to collaborate on research. “The argument was very simple,” he explains in the documentary. “If you’ve got a global problem and you need global action, you really need one piece of work that was trusted by governments around the world.”

On March 22, 1985, more than 20 nations signed the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer thanks to mounting scientific evidence. The treaty called for the sharing of climate and atmospheric research, formalizing international cooperation.

World leaders that were willing to lend their support

There was skepticism about the science behind ozone depletion in the ’70s and ’80s, just as there is today about findings related to climate change. But in a move that surprised some — given his record on environmental policy and industry regulation — then U.S. president Ronald Reagan bucked the recommendations of his advisors and the powerful chemical lobby to support ozone protection.

Reagan was an “outdoors guy” says George Shultz, who was the U.S. secretary of state at the time. What’s more, he’d already undergone operations to remove cancerous skin cells from his nose, likely caused by exposure to the sun.

Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister of the U.K., also appealed to world leaders to pledge funds so that developing nations could adopt new, CFC-free technologies. “Each country has to contribute, and those countries who are industrialized must contribute more to help those who are not. It is life itself, incomparably precious, that distinguishes us from other planets. It is life itself that we must battle to preserve,” she said.

Thatcher worked as a research chemist before taking office and told the media that she was proud to be the country’s first “scientist prime minister.” During the late 1980s, she also helped put issues like climate change, pollution and acid rain on the map.

“You’ve got to have leaders who can come to a conclusion and lead,” Shultz says in the documentary, remembering the heads of state that supported the protection of the ozone layer.

An industry that acted responsibility (eventually)

With the debate over CFCs heating up in the 1970s, DuPont placed a notice in newspapers saying that as soon as there was “reputable evidence” that CFCs were a hazard they would stop production. Still, they fought regulations for over a decade, insisting CFCs were safe.

In 1985, British researchers Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin published another groundbreaking study that showed a massive hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The ozone, they observed, was already 35 per cent gone. The trio’s work was later confirmed by NASA researchers who travelled to Antarctica to confirm the data.

NASA photo of ozon hole

“It was visually stunning for people to see that [the hole] was continental in scale,” says Paul Newman, NASA’s chief scientist for earth sciences. “It [looked] like somebody punched a hole in the ozone layer.” The evidence now seemed clear.

DuPont had made a promise, so they announced that they would end CFC production. Experts around the world then set to work to find and implement an alternative.

Belief in the ‘precautionary principle’

World leaders like Reagan, Thatcher and Canadian Prime Minister Brain Mulroney were able to sell their participation in the Montreal Protocol to the public as an insurance policy, something worth the effort in case the science turned out to be right.

“What we’re talking about here is the precautionary principle. And that is … at what point do you take action as a caution against what might happen?” says Lee Thomas, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “By the time you get absolute certainty it is, in many cases, too late to deal with the problem.”

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, adopted on Sept. 16, 1987, was the world’s first global treaty to reduce pollution, regulating the use and production of almost 100 man-made chemicals. It was, as Shultz recalls Reagan saying, “a magnificent achievement.”

Thanks to quick action by the international community, the ozone hole over Antarctica is now the smallest it’s been since its discovery. According to the documentary, the ozone layer is predicted to recover completely by 2065.

Human action appears to have solved the first great man-made threat to the planet’s environment. With further climate change on the horizon, what would it take to make this happen again?

Watch How We Saved the Planet: Ozone Hole.