World Ozone Day: What happened to the ozone hole – and what can we learn from it?

16 September 2021

Today we are celebrating World Ozone Day, which marks 34 years since the Montreal Protocol was established. The daunting discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 sparked immediate global concern and remained a hot topic for decades – but in recent years, the discussion seems to have faded out. In the light of this year’s World Ozone Day,

We’d like to take a moment to look back at this ground-breaking milestone for the climate, and what can be learned from it – from both an environmental as well as a business perspective. Hint: It’s very good news and quite the call to action!

Recap: what’s the ozone hole and how did it emerge in the first place?

Let’s start off with the basics.

The ozone layer refers to a blanket of high concentrations of ozone located in the stratosphere, about 15-35 km above the earth’s surface. Preserving the ozone layer is important because it protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Without it, life as we know it today would not be possible, as all living beings including plants, crops, and ecosystems essential for our survival would be suffering from a drastic increase in cancerous diseases, leaving us not only with major medical issues but also potential famines.

In 1974, it was discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – referring to chemicals that were commonly used in everyday products like refrigerators and various health care products back then – were strongly linked to the destruction of ozone molecules, resulting in the thinning of the ozone layer. Ten years later, atmospheric scientist Joe Farman and colleagues published a cutting-edge research paper, the findings of which demonstrated that the ozone problem was far greater than initially expected: alarmingly low levels of stratospheric ozone were detected above the South Pole – a region now known as the Antarctic ozone hole.

The Montreal Protocol – Unprecedented international cooperation and a trigger for innovation

Although large corporations due to special interests initially denied and even made attempts to disprove the correlation between CFCs (in addition to other ozone-depleting substances) and the thinning of the ozone layer, the body of scientific evidence solidified and quickly became indisputable. The consensus was formalized in the 1985 Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which laid the foundation for the landmark international agreement: the Montreal Protocol.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, adopted in 1987, is the first (and so far only) global environmental treaty to be ratified by every UN-recognized country in the world. The Protocol aims to protect the ozone layer by dictating that ozone-depleting substances – such as CFCs – are to be phased out.

As these new regulatory measures were introduced at a quick pace, industries had no other choice but to begin exploring substitutes to these environmentally damaging chemicals. This spurred innovation and allowed enterprises that pioneered in researching CFC alternatives to actually gain from the new regulations. Businesses today and in the future will also draw concrete benefits from the Montreal protocol, as Ozone protection efforts according to UNEP have brought an estimated USD $429 billion in global economic benefits between 1987 and 2060, due to avoided damages to agriculture and fisheries.

Through countries’ and industries’ joint efforts, 99% of ozone-depleting substances have now successfully been replaced.

Ozone hole at a record low in 2019

With that bit of history behind us, let’s move on to the next question: How is the ozone layer is doing today?

Taking into account recent fluctuations in the stratospheric ozone levels, the overall pattern is still that the ozone layer is recovering – albeit slowly. 2019 was an exceptionally good year, with NASA reporting that the ozone hole was at its smallest since its first observation in 1982.

It is safe to say that the enforcement of the Montreal Protocol has spared us an environmental catastrophe. In fact, a scientific study by Chipperfield and colleagues estimated that without the ban of ozone depleting chemicals, the Antarctic ozone hole would have been 40% bigger by 2013. The paper also promisingly predicts that we should expect the ozone hole to disappear by 2050. Additionally, with CFCs also being environmental pollutants, UNEP shares that we through phasing them out have saved 135 gigatons of carbon dioxide from 1990 to 2010.

Despite this positive news, we shouldn’t forget that there is still work left to be done. Oksana Tarasova, Head of WMO Atmospheric Environment Research Division, reminds us that: “we need continued international action to enforce the Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals. There is still enough ozone depleting substances in the atmosphere to cause ozone depletion.”

World Ozone Day reminding us of what’s possible

So, what can we learn from all this? We’ve extracted two key takeaways.

Firstly, we believe that the rapid collective action taken to repair the ozone layer demonstrates that humans are capable of achieving great results (and fixing the problems that we created), as long as there is a will to do so. Events like this can provide us with glimmers of hope while we’re in the midst of combatting climate change, biodiversity loss, and rapidly increasing extreme weather events. In the words of the United Nations’ Secretary-General António Guterres:

“Let us take encouragement from how we have worked together to preserve the ozone layer and apply the same will to healing the planet and forging a brighter and more equitable future for all humanity.”

Secondly, yet still focused on cooperation, is remembering the significance of collaboration between sectors. While we know that collaboration between states through international policymaking is integral to cementing global targets, we too believe that it is crucial for businesses to liaise more closely with researchers, scientists, and policymakers due to their influence on regulation. As we just learned through the history of the ozone hole – few global problems are fixed without regulation and international agreements.

Yet, as businesses are more than complicit in the issues of climate change, we should arguably expect them to play their part in supporting the development of much-needed legislation for the climate. In addition, against the backdrop of the many environmental threats that we are facing today, we urge corporations to ensure that they are growing sustainably and in alignment with national and international commitments.

As this story reveals, taking on a proactive approach can spare the world – and businesses – large costs in avoided future environmental damage. It should also serve as a reminder that dedicated action just might solve the environmental issues we face.

Author details

Bea Vanhala

Senior Consultant