Ozone is a gas that that protects life on Earth from the sun’s harmful radiation. It is found in the stratosphere and blocks UV-B rays from the sun from reaching the Earth’s surface. UV-B increases the risk of skin cancer and cataracts, harms micro-organisms, plants and aquatic life.
Since the 1970s, the concentration of ozone had fallen by 4 percent with much faster seasonal thinning of the ozone layer over polar regions happening each year. These depletions are especially prominent in Antarctica, where a significant hole in the ozone layer appears yearly.
The Montreal Protocol was created in the late 1980s in response to scientific research that showed this rapid decline in the atmospheric concentration of ozone.
Scientists soon determined that human activities were causing the depletion of the ozone layer. Chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration units — were the main culprits.
When a CFC molecule reaches the stratosphere it can linger for a hundred years, and the chlorine within the molecule can cause the destruction of tens of thousands of ozone molecules.
Under the treaty, countries agreed to phase out the production and consumption of CFCs and other substances that deplete ozone by specific deadlines. The protocol’s Multilateral Fund was created to help developing nations meet their obligations under the treaty.
All countries in the United Nations system have ratified the protocol, although not all have signed all of its amendments. These amendments are made at periodic meetings of parties to the protocol to speed up the phase out of substances.
Overall, the protocol is considered to be a great success, despite some attempt to circumvent it by smuggling CFCs from developing to developed nations (see Case Study, below).
January 2010 marked the complete phase out of a significant group of ozone depleting substances – the CFCs, halons and carbon tetrachloride.
The treaty is one of many Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). Its full title is the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer and it entered into force on 1 January 1989.
The Montreal Protocol created the legally binding obligations for its parent treaty, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which was created in 1985 and entered into force in 1988.
CFCs can often be replaced by the less damaging hydro-chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) but these are not entirely ozone-friendly.
Another group of chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are safer for the ozone layer as they contain no chlorine, but both HCFCs and HFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.
Meanwhile, HFCs are not listed as greenhouse gases under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change‘s Kyoto Protocol, the only international agreement that legally binds countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
This means that while the Montreal Protocol could help to address climate change as well as ozone depletion if it also controlled HFCs.
Parties to the protocol already agreed in 2007 to accelerate the phase-out of HCFCs, and in 2009, Mauritius and Micronesia have called on parties to add HFCs to the list of chemicals to be phased out. For this to happen all 196 parties to the protocol would need to agree.
In recent years, there have been reports of a recovery of ozone concentrations but experts predict that it will take up until 2050 for ozone levels in mid-latitude areas to return to pre-1980s levels.
Good sources of information include the Ozone Secretariat, which is the official home of the Montreal Protocol. Its website includes press releases, background information and contact details of officials in each country that is party to the convention.
The Earth Negotiations Bulletin provides daily reports during each Meeting of Parties to the Montreal Protocol and is a good source of neutral information on each negotiating session.
The bulletin is produced by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which also runs Chemicals-L, an email-based mailing list for news and announcements about chemical policy, which is also a good source for journalists.
Another useful source in the Environmental Investigation Agency. It has spent over ten years tracking the illegal trade in ozone-depleting substances and now focuses on how such chemicals can contribute to climate change.
CASE STUDY – CFC Smuggling in Asia
By the late 1990s, large amounts of CFCs were being smuggled from China, where they were readily available at low cost, to Europe, where demand was high despite strict regulations.
As the Montreal Protocol’s 2010 deadline for phasing out various ozone-depleting substances in Asian nations approached, the illegal trade in these products increased.
By 2007, India was now a favored destination. Despite the country producing four times more CFCs than it needed, the prices there were much higher than elsewhere because only a few manufacturers controlled the market.
The UN Environment Program (UNEP) stated that year that the illegal trade was worth US$25-60 million globally and accounted for 10-20 percent of the total trade in ozone-depleting substances.
UNEP’s response to the illegal trade was to set up Project Skyhole Patching, a collaboration with customs and environmental officials in 18 countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
The project trained customs and enforcement officers to monitor the movements of ozone depleting substances and share information about possible smuggling.
Within a few months, the project had led to seizures of up to 64.8 tons of illegal ozone depleting substances in China, India and Thailand.
The Montreal Protocol by UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme – Ozone Secretariat
NASA – Ozone Hole Watch