We did it! Ozone layer set to recover within decades

Repairing the ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet rays from the sun  (Nasa/Unsplash)
Repairing the ozone layer protects the Earth from ultraviolet rays from the sun (Nasa/Unsplash)

Good environmental news may be in short supply but the World Meteorological Organization has shared something for everyone to celebrate.

Due to changes introduced in the landmark 1989 Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer is on course to be restored to its 1980s levels within the next few decades, reducing our exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.

Agreed in 1989, the Montreal Protocol was a global agreement between governments around the world to phase out the use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) found in things like solvents, refrigerants and spray cans.

Thirty-three years later, the agreement is showing clear results, with the latest UN-backed scientific report stating that 1980s values will be restored by 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic and by 2040 for the rest of the world.

The progress relies on the current restrictions being maintained, of course, as well as other human actions not affecting recovery.

In particular, the report warned that stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) – intentionally pushing aerosols into the stratosphere to artificially cool the planet and combat the effects of climate change –  “could also affect stratospheric temperatures, circulation and ozone production and destruction rates and transport”.

On the subject of climate change, the Montreal Protocol may well have prevented a bad situation from getting even worse. A 2021 study suggested that the agreement could have shaved up to one degree Celsius from our current global warming trajectory.

On top of that, the Kigali Amendment to the protocol agreed upon in 2016, adds some hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to the phase-down. This won’t directly affect the ozone layer, but will help us avoid an additional 0.3 to 0.5 degrees of climate change, according to the report.

More generally, the success is a powerful reminder that collective human action can make a difference to the biggest environmental crises we face as a species, including climate change.

“Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action,” said the World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas. “Our success in phasing out ozone-eating chemicals shows us what can and must be done – as a matter of urgency – to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and so limit temperature increase.”

Climate change is undoubtedly a more intimidating problem, affecting far more areas of human life than the phasing out of CFCs did in the 1980s and 1990s. But the phenomenal progress at restoring the ozone layer over the last few decades proves that humans can collectively find solutions to planetary problems.

That’s something for everyone to cling to for COP28 and beyond.