I chose to do my Civic Issues blog on the environment and environmental policy. I will cover all aspects of environmental policy, from old policies that are appearing in the news, to policy actions that are in the process of being passed, and policies that should be passed. I will also talk about things that are occurring in the environment and how these events might affect policy.
Twenty four years ago, many prominent countries across the world began to realize the devastating effect that the loss of the ozone layer would have on the world. The ozone layer is a thin layer of high levels of ozone (O3) in the stratosphere. Its main function is to prevent the suns harmful ultraviolet rays from hitting the Earth below it. Without it, life may have never developed on Earth. Around the same time as the realization, the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica reached its largest size ever recorded.
To combat this, many of these countries met in Montreal, Canada, to figure out how they could reverse this. The result was the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty has since been ratified by 197 countries, including all of the members of the United Nations and the European Union. This treaty banned the use of ozone depleting substances, the worst of which are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and halogenated hydrocarbons. It was officially ratified in 1990.
Chloroflourocarbons are arguably the most well known ozone depleting substance. They are composed of chlorine, fluorine, and carbon. They were most commonly used in aerosols and refrigerants. When they are released into the air, they travel upwards, into the stratosphere, where they decompose into constituent elements. This decomposition allows them to react with the ozone in the atmosphere, removing the ozone from the ozone layer more quickly than natural processes do. Usually, ozone in the atmosphere is decomposed by the ultraviolet rays that hit them, however this occurs at a relatively slow rate. CFCs speed up this rate and allows the ultraviolet rays to get through to the surface of the Earth. This resulted in increased rates of skin cancer and the increased need for sun screen.
At the time of the signing of the treaty, many people were not sure if the ozone layer would replenish itself. There was much debate about whether or not it could be saved, however everyone argued something needed to be changed. So, many countries signed the treaty and held their breath, anxiously waiting to see what would happen. For a while nothing got better. Actually, on the contrary, the hole grew even larger throughout the mid 1990s (as shown in the graphic above). Finally, it looks like the regulations against CFCs are working. A NASA study has found that the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica has finally stabilized. They warn that over the next decade or so, the hole will still fluctuate in size depending on global weather patterns. Until chlorine levels in the atmosphere can reach the levels they were in the 1990s, a point that researchers believe will happen between 2015 and 2030, will we begin to see a definite change in the trend of the ozone layer. If the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere can reach the 1990s levels, scientists believe we will have a full recovery around 2070.
This is great news. However, it does not mean people should stop treating the environment any worse than they are now because things are getting better. If anything, they should take this as a wake up call. Environmental policy can be successful, as demonstrated by this study. This means we have to take every step to make the environment our number one priority. Clearly, environmental policy has its benefits. This specific example did not cost a lot to make a reality, however many other ideas require a significant time and monetary investment to be successful. We have to begin making this investment. Instead of funding the endless wars in the Middle East or the war on drugs, which have both had zero evidence of success, we should look to things that have had or can have success. That starts with a serious investment from ordinary people. You can make significant change simply by putting a plastic bottle in the recycling bin or by turning off the light when you leave a room.