30 years ago in the third issue of Concrete, the article “UEA lecturer fears state of the ozone layer” was written focussing on the work of UEA academic Graham Bentham. In revisiting the article today we ask, what has changed in the world of environmental policy and UEA’s approach to climate change?
The ozone layer in the Earth’s stratosphere protects us from harmful UV-radiation, absorbing 97-99 percent of it. Although it is 10-20 miles above, the ozone layer is essential for life on earth. Its ability to filter out dangerous rays not only saves humans from sunburn, but also far deadlier effects. Cataracts, immune system problems and even skin cancer can develop from overexposure to UV-light. This makes the ozone layer incredibly important for our health and protecting it a priority. It was the focus of Graham Bentham’s work and the article’s author, Tom Knowland, highlighted the human cost of inaction.
In 1992, the main threat to the ozone layer was CFCs and HFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). These molecules were commonplace in aerosols and refrigerants which were capable of surviving the journey up to the stratosphere and then were broken down into free radicals– atoms or ions that are highly reactive. A single radical from a CFC could destroy 10,000 ozone molecules, meaning stopping these ozone-depleting compounds was vitally important. In 1978, Canada, the United States and Norway voted to ban them from aerosols.
The impact of CFCs at the time of the article being written was well known but looking back, has the action taken on the issue since made a difference? The Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol were worked on in 1985 and 1987 respectively, and reached a consensus between 197 countries on the phasing out of large numbers of harmful compounds. Triggered by the findings of a large ozone hole above Antarctica, international action was swift and effective, with Kofi Annan stating the Montreal agreement may be “the single most successful international agreement to date.” By 2016, scientists had formed a consensus that progress was being made and the ozone layer should return to its original state midway through the 21st century.
While other protocols and conventions like the Kyoto Protocol regarding climate change were largely considered failures, action on the ozone layer has been seen as a success. Without the action and awareness seen 30 or even 40 years ago, we would have likely been living on a far hotter, dangerous and inhospitable planet than we are today. Work from scientists like Graham Bentham and others helped to raise awareness about the issue and put a plan in place. It is fitting in the year of the COP26 summit, where nations look towards the future for global action on climate change,that success stories can be found thus giving hope to the current generation.