Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Global warming: the heat’s back on

September 14, 2012

Protecting the ozone layer means the next step must be the control of damaging HFCs

By Geoffrey Lean

It was an extraordinary triumph of old technology over new, of basic science over space-age wizardry and – 25 years ago tomorrow – it led to a planet-saving pact, one of the most successful treaties ever agreed.
Back in 1983, Dr Joe Farman, a diffident British geophysicist then running a couple of research stations in Antarctica, spotted something that made him go “nearly off my rocker”. Routine measurements he had been taking on a 25-year-old machine swathed in a quilt showed that half the ozone, high in the stratosphere 15 to 50 kilometres above the earth, appeared to have vanished.
It seemed incredible, since a Nasa satellite was busily circling the globe, taking 140,000 ozone readings a day and reporting nothing much out of the ordinary. Thinking that his ancient contraption might have finally gone awry, Farman replaced it with a new one in 1984. But it showed even less of the stuff overhead.
With great daring, he published his findings, even though one of his paper’s referees described them as “impossible”. Nasa was provoked to review its records – only to find that its satellite had indeed made similar measurements, but that its software had automatically disregarded them as unreliable before they could be seen.
The discovery of the “ozone hole” caused alarm, because a thinly scattered stratospheric layer of the blue-tinged gas is all that protects terrestrial life from lethal ultraviolet solar rays. For more than a decade, some scientists had worried that CFCs, used in a huge range of products from foams to aerosol cans, were eroding it – and, sure enough, observations soon showed they were to blame.

International negotiations on tackling ozone depletion, which had been sputtering along without much practical progress, suddenly sprang into life, with Ronald Reagan’s United States leading the drive for urgent action. On September 16 1987, 24 countries signed the Montreal Protocol. Its original measures were modest and agreement on them was so hard-won that it was not translated from English into the five other official UN languages – as is normal practice – for fear that the inevitable change in nuances would cause it to collapse.

But it took off: time and again participating nations tightened the targets, phasing out CFCs and a host of other ozone-damaging chemicals.

All 197 UN countries have now ratified it – the first treaty of any kind to have gained universal membership. It covers some 100 substances and reduces their total production by nearly 98 per cent. The ozone layer will still take decades to heal, but potential disaster has been averted.

Yet by a strange symmetry, as the pact’s 25th anniversary is marked, a similar shock is under way at the other end of the earth. This weekend, Arctic sea ice is nearing its annual minimum, reaching an unprecedentedly small 3.5 million square kilometres in extent. This is a massive 650,000 square kilometres beneath its previous record low, in September 2007 – and that in itself represented a drop to levels not expected to result from global warming until 2050.

The ice now covers little more than half the area it did at this time of year in the 1980s and 1990s. And it is also getting thinner; in all, there is only about 30 per cent as much ice as three decades ago. Many scientists say the Arctic could soon be ice-free, for the first time in millions of years.

When, and if, that happens, the shock may finally galvanise the sclerotic international climate- change negotiations, but it is likely then to be too late to avoid enormous, if incalculable, consequences. Yet, curiously, the Montreal Protocol may provide the best chance of taking rapid action in the meantime.

Indeed, it has already achieved more than two decades of climate talks, since CFCs and other ozone depleters also contribute to global warming: phasing them out has been five times as effective as the Kyoto Protocol in tackling climate change.

Unfortunately, the chemicals increasingly being employed in their place, HFCs, are themselves exceptionally potent greenhouse gases, and their rise threatens to undo all the progress made in tackling global warming so far. Frustratingly, they come under the aegis of the climate talks and so are caught up in the logjam that bedevils those negotiations. More than 100 countries want them to be brought under the Montreal Protocol, which is much more likely to take action – but this is being blocked by India and China, which have large HFC industries, with support from Brazil.

It will come to a head at a Protocol meeting in November. Making the change and controlling HFCs would be the fastest and cheapest available means of mitigating global warming, a fitting way of marking the anniversary of a momentous pact.

New man, new environment: a chance to make a difference

Here’s a small cheer for Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary. His first major act has been to launch Britain’s first “rural statement”, pledging action to revive England’s long-neglected countryside. A fifth of rural families are beneath the poverty line, and their numbers have been rising three times as quickly as in the cities.

Paterson revealed a major boost for providing “superfast broadband” in the countryside – an issue on which this newspaper has campaigned but to which ministers once seemed strangely indifferent – and plans to make it easier to convert barns into offices. And he promised £15 million to help communities install wind farms and other renewable energy schemes.

Credit goes to his sacked predecessor, Caroline Spelman, under whom the statement will have been drawn up. And it is far from ideal: for example, it does not give adequate attention to the environment.

But Paterson has the reputation of understanding the countryside. Everything depends on how he follows up. He should, for example, reconsider Spelman’s inexplicable decision to axe the Commission for Rural Communities, which is due to close in March.

The one body that campaigns for the rural economy, it will be sorely missed – especially when more urban-centred ministers succeed him in post.

Tasmanian Devil’s secret to a longer life? Don’t be so beastly

They really do live up to their name. Tasmanian Devils are smelly, aggressive, emit an extremely loud screech, and have been known to eat their young. But the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, the size of a small dog, may be saved from extinction by becoming less, er, devilish.

Over the past 15 years, the animals have been increasingly wiped out by an infectious facial cancer, which kills within months, and is spread by their habit of biting each other when they mate, establish social hierarchies or meet to feed on a carcass.

Now research has shown that the more peaceable a devil may be, the greater its chance of avoiding disease.

The researchers, who have published their results in the Journal of Animal Ecology, found that it was the biters, not the bit, who were most at risk – because they went for their victims’ faces, puncturing their tumours and thus picking up the disease.

Eventually, natural selection could take care of this, ensuring that the species gradually becomes more sociable. The scientists, at the University of Tasmania, are wondering if there may be a way of giving evolution a helping hand. But somehow Tasmanian Angels sound a hell of a lot less interesting.