Ozone treaty now universally ratified

Posted: 18 September 2009

The Montreal Protocol, a treaty to protect the ozone layer, which shields all life on Earth from deadly levels of ultra violet rays, has become the first environmental agreement to achieve universal participation by all 196 parties.

The last of these countries came on board on Thursday when Mr. Xanana Gusmão, the Prime Minister of the young Pacific nation of Timor-Leste, announced that it had ratified the Protocol.

The historic announcement, made on the UN's International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, is the latest in a rapidly evolving list of achievements for the ozone treaties, and gives some hope that a successful climate treaty can also be agreed.

Ozone hole
Ozone hole
The Antractic ozone hole in September 2008. Though larger than it was in 2007, the 2008 ozone hole was still smaller than the record set in 2006. Credit: NASA
The Montreal Protocol, established to phase-out the pollutants that were damaging the planet's protective shield, will in just three months' time have completely retired close to 100 chemicals linked with ozone damage.

The global treaty is being celebrated not only for the progress made in the recovery of the ozone layer, but its contribution to combating climate change.

Skin cancer

Achim Steiner, Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: "The ratification by Timor-Leste makes this special day even more special and a signal that when the world fully and wholly unites around an environmental challenge there can be multiple and transformative effects.

"Without the Montreal Protocol and its Vienna Convention, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances would have increased tenfold by 2050 which in turn could have led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture."

He said that by some estimates, the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances had contributed a delay in global warming of some seven to 12 years since 1990.

Marco González, Executive Secretary of the Ozone Secretariat, hosted by UNEP, said the focus was now switching from the original gases such as CFCs to their replacement gases known as HCFCs and HFCs for uses in refrigerators, foams and flame retardants.

In 2007 governments agreed to accelerate the freeze and phase-out hydrochloflurocarbons or HCFCs - explicitly for their climate change impacts.

The maximum benefits here are only likely to occur if this goes hand in hand with the introduction of more energy efficient equipment that can work with substances that have low or zero global warming potential.

New focus

The focus is now also rapidly shifting to hydroflurocarbons (HFCs). This year scientists, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggested that if these became the replacement substances of choice, the climate impacts could be serious.

The scientists argue that HFC use could climb sharply in the coming years in products such as insulation foams air conditioning units and refrigeration as replacements.

Conversely, rapid action to freeze and to cut emissions annually alongside fostering readily available alternatives could see HFC emissions fall to under one Gigatonne by 2050.

Governments will meet in Egypt in to chart the future directions for the Montreal treaty including its role in combating climate change.

The Earth's protective shield is likely to take another 40 years to 50 years to fully recover.