35 years ago, the Montreal Protocol showed how successful co-operation could solve a big environmental problem
Cora Young was eight years old when she learned in class that polystyrene foam, the clamshell packaging for some fast-food hamburgers, was one of the products containing chemicals responsible for eating away at the Earth’s ozone layer.
“I went home and told my parents we were no longer allowed to eat at fast food restaurants,” said Young.
It was 1989, just two years after an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol was signed, and there was growing awareness of the dangers some products posed to the ozone layer, compromising its ability to shield us from cancer-causing UV radiation.
Aerosols in hairspray and deodorant, along with chemicals in refrigerators and air conditioners, were some other culprits.
Thirty-five years later, the Montreal Protocol has started to heal the ozone layer, although experts say it will take decades longer to restore it.
Today, Young uses it as an example with her own students as an associate professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University in Toronto.
For her students, “it tends to make them, I think, more optimistic that we could do better for other environmental issues going forward, the fact that we’ve been so successful in the past.”
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was adopted on September 16, 1987 and would eventually set the course for the world to stop manufacturing and using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
It included the ability to adjust the agreement according to new evidence and science, and has averted greenhouse gas emissions, offering lessons for international climate action today.
Getting to international agreement required more than just firm scientific consensus to prompt industry and governments to act.
First, the science
In 1974, two scientists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, published a paper arguing that chemicals from aerosols were reaching the stratosphere and eating away at ozone. While their work eventually won them the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, it was not enough to catalyze governments around the world into action.