Ozone recovery offers a success to build on

Copyright 1998 The News Tribune (Tacaoma, WA)
October 11, 1998

Finally, some good news on the environmental front: The earth's protective ozone layer is beginning to recover from years of pollution damage.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, harmful chlorofluorocarbons - or CFCs - are beginning to level off in the upper atmosphere, 10 to 25 miles above Earth. For humans, this promising trend could translate into fewer incidents of illnesses such as skin cancer and cataracts. Plants and animals likewise would be less susceptible to the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

The group's report also asserts that the accumulation of destructive, ozone-depleting chlorine reached its peak in the lower atmosphere about four years ago. Unfortunately, the bromine, another ozone-depleting compound, is still on the rise, although it is now considered less dangerous than it once was.

Much of the credit for ozone recovery is due to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international environmental accord reached between 140 industrialized and developing nations. Under the agreement, the U.S. and other Western economic powers were required to end production of CFCs by 1996. Developing nations such as China will have until 2006 to do so.

Some critics contend the Montreal Protocol has been too lenient, particularly given concerns about global warming. But seeking too much and failing to act at all would have been a far worse outcome.

The facts speak for themselves. Scientists now say half of the Northern Hemisphere's ozone layer would have been lost in 50 years if the current rules were not in force. Experts also agree that 70 percent of the Southern Hemisphere's ozone layer would have been destroyed, causing a dramatic and dangerous increase in ultraviolet radiation on Earth.

But even this positive news must be tempered with reality. Despite the ban, some illegal production of CFCs continues. New model jet aircraft leave harmful particles in the atmosphere. And ozone holes over the North and South poles continue to return every year, adding to fears of global warming.

A similar consensus for action on global warming has been hard to find. But the international community now has at least one success to point to as a model of cooperation on the environment.

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