Political action is often seen as less important than technological or economic factors in driving large-scale environmental change. With multiple governments failing to take effective action on climate change, this erroneous belief has got many subscribers. Yet, there are examples from the past where national and international governments have taken serious action to curb environmental impact. And we continue to reap the benefits of such meaningful action.
No environmental treaty is perhaps as famous as the Montreal Protocol in this regard. Adding to its immense contribution towards arresting ozone depletion, a new study has now shown that the Earth would’ve been scorched if not for its implementation.
Considering how badly climate change has shaken us up, it’s hard to imagine that things could’ve been worse. But the researchers from Lancaster University decided to take one for the team and delved into the “World Avoided” scenario as they called it. The team led a study on what the Earth’s situation would’ve been like had the landmark agreement not been implemented back in 1989.
The study revealed that had the ozone depletion continued unmitigated, we would have been facing an alarming rise in temperature by an additional 0.5 to 1°C by the end of this century! Remember, we have already witnessed warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels and are set to breach 1.5 to 2°C levels in the next few decades. An additional degree of warming could have scorched most parts of the globe this century.
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was a global agreement aimed at eliminating the use of chemicals that contributed to ozone depletion. One of the compounds eliminated from use under this agreement was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs are amongst the most potent enemies of the ozone layer.
According to these scientists, the Montreal Protocol and the subsequent ban of CFCs have at least given us a fighting chance against global warming. Not only do CFCs cause ozone depletion, but they are also greenhouse gases. In fact, they are among the most potent greenhouse gases, with thousands of times higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide. So it is safe to say that the ban on their use killed two birds with one stone.
Ozone depletion would have had its own cascading impact on global warming too! If the ozone failed to protect plants from UV radiation, that would surely impair them, and the plants cannot trap carbon dioxide, speeding up global warming.
The researchers have painted quite a vivid picture of the hypothetical world where the use of CFCs increased by about 3% with each passing year. They’ve made some troubling projections based on this premise. The study predicts that by the year 2040, the ozone layer would’ve collapsed worldwide, if not for the Montreal Protocol. It also sees a negative impact on the Earth’s vegetation because of increased exposure to UV light.
“A world where these chemicals increased and continued to strip away at our protective ozone layer would have been catastrophic for human health, but also for vegetation. The increased UV would have massively stunted the ability of plants to soak up carbon from the atmosphere, meaning higher CO2 levels and more global warming,” says Paul Young, the lead author of the study.
While this study highlights how successful the Montreal Protocol has been in achieving its goals, it also shows how close we were to a scorched planet. Dr Young says, “entirely conceivable threats to it still exist, such as from unregulated use of CFCs.”
To keep this grim simulation from becoming our reality, it’s important to implement more such binding agreements on the international stage.
This study was published in the journal Nature earlier this week and can be found here.
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