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The story of the Ozone campaign

Background - 24 September, 2010
By Greenpeace campaigner Janos Maté.

On September 23, 2010 I shall have the honour to receive the “2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Montreal Protocol Award” for my work with Greenpeace to protect the ozone layer and the climate over the past 18 years. The award ceremony will take place at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. Here are some of my reflections upon the occasion.

Save the Ozone layer

April 1992 - Greenpeace banner hanging from the Houses of Parliament in a protest against the continued production and use of ozone depleting chemicals. London, UK. © Greenpeace / Jim Hodson

Before coming to work with Greenpeace, I worked in the field of psychotherapy for nearly twenty years. So when in 1989 I decided to take a job as a Greenpeace Canada anti-nuclear campaigner I often wondered about the collective psychosis that was driving humanity towards the wanton destruction of our home planet. How else can we explain what could compel humans to blow up over two thousand nuclear bombs on the very planet upon which our own existence depends.

In 1995 I sailed as the campaigner on board the Caramba, a Greenpeace chartered sailboat from Tahiti to Mururoa Atoll to protest French underground nuclear testing.  Our arrival to the exclusion zone around the test site coincided with the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. When the bomb went off my incredulity turned to deep grief and I wept. Mother Earth had just been raped. I sent messages to the UN and the rest of world from this place which at that time was for me the epitome of evil that humans can perpetrate.

But of course humans bring evil or great harm to the world in a myriad of ways that are not always so dramatic. Our day to day destruction of nature’s balance is generally much more routine, much more banal or innocent. 

One simple example is our use of fluorocarbon chemical refrigerants in our refrigerators and air-conditioners. These chemicals, like CFCs (commonly known as Freon) and HCFCs, are potent ozone depleting and global warming substances. They are the major cause of ozone layer depletion. The ozone layer is the only protective shield life on Earth has against the deadly ultraviolet, or UV-B radiation of the sun. Life on earth could not exist without this protective shield.

Over the years millions of tons of these chemicals were emitted into the atmosphere, and the multinational chemical companies continued to produce and vigorously market them even after they had credible scientific evidence (since the 1970s) that their products could destroy the ozone layer. Now is that not insane?

And tragically, governments for the most part were complicit with industry. By the mid-1970s governments also knew that these substances could potentially undermine life on Earth, and for nearly 12 years they did little to curb their use.  Public pressure and the appearance of a massive ozone hole over the Antarctic in 1986 finally compelled governments to create in 1987 the Montreal Protocol to control and phase-out ozone depleting substances.

In 1992 Greenpeace invited me to be a campaigner with the ozone layer protection campaign and I have been with the campaign ever since.  

The aim of the campaign was to put public pressure on the producers of CFCs and other ozone depleting substances to stop producing these substances, and to demand that governments radically accelerate the phase out schedule for these substances.

Greenpeace also insisted that ozone depleting substances  (CFCs and HCFCs) must not be replaced by the chemical industry’s substitutes, that is HFCs, which are benign to the ozone layer but are very powerful greenhouse gases, and are therefore devastating for the climate. Instead Greenpeace promoted the use of natural refrigerants, such as hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, water and ammonia to meet our cooling needs.

Over the 18 years that I have worked on this campaign I have seen many positive developments in the world and I know that Greenpeace has made several significant contributions.

For example, Greenpeace revolutionized the global domestic refrigeration sector by developing and commercializing in 1993 the ozone and climate friendly Greenfreeze hydrocarbon technology. Greenpeace was instrumental in the spread of this technology from Europe to most parts of the world, including China, Japan, and Latin America . The organization received the UNEP Ozone Award from the United Nations for developing and making this technology freely available.


Ozone friendly refrigerator containing no freons or CFCs. Washington DC. © Greenpeace / Robert Visser

Today there are over 400 million Greenfreeze refrigerators in the world, and it is expected that by 2020, 75% of domestic refrigeration production in the world will be using the Greenpeace technology.

Greenpeace was also instrumental in the development of SolarChill which is a solar powered and battery free vaccine cooler and food refrigerator designed for parts of the world that have no reliable electricity.

During those 18 years I have also seen unprecedented international cooperation within the Montreal Protocol. While the Montreal Protocol could have achieved much more over the years, it is nevertheless the most successful global environmental treaty to date. 196 countries, all national governments on the planet, have ratified it.  Between 1986 and 2010 the Montreal Protocol has facilitated nearly a 97% reduction in the consumption of ozone depleting substances, which concurrently reduced the emissions of nearly 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases a year, with a net reduction of 135 billion tonnes between 1990 and 2010.

The Montreal Protocol, by establishing the Multilateral Fund, has also recognized that rich countries have a responsibility to financially assist developing countries to phase out their use of ozone depleting substances.  This responsibility arises from the fact that rich countries have historically emitted by far the lion’s share of ozone depleting substances and have therefore caused the greatest damage to the ozone layer. Through the Multilateral Fund more than 2.5 billion dollars have been disbursed to 147 developing countries to help them comply with the Montreal Protocol.

But the fact is that 2.5 billion dollars to save life on the planet is not a lot of money. Consider that the U.S. spends nearly 11 billion dollars a month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Furthermore, all the costs have until now been borne only by the taxpayers of donor countries. The chemical corporations have meanwhile steadily profited from the continued sale of their ozone depleting or global warming  fluorocarbon products (CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs),  and they have not been held accountable by governments to pay any reparations for the damage that their products have caused and continue to cause to the environment and human health. 

Despite the successes of the Montreal Protocol, scientists do not expect the ozone layer to sufficiently recover until around 2050. That means that it will have taken nearly 75 years for the recovery to happen from the time that the threat of ozone layer depletion caused by man made chemicals was first reported.

I believe that Greenpeace, along with other NGOs, played a vital role within the framework of the Montreal Protocol by persistently challenging governments to do more, and to act with greater determination and effectiveness to protect the ozone layer and the climate.

The Montreal Protocol is an example of how the whole world must and can come together to meet global environmental challenges. We desperately need such level of cooperation to tackle global warming. 

Much more could be said and much more needs to be done. But as I accept today the "2010 U.S. EPA Montreal Protocol Award", I shall have two thoughts.

One, that I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to make a difference in the world through Greenpeace. And the other, that the most important lesson the ozone crisis teaches us is that it is easier to break it than to fix it. It is easier to tip than to restore nature’s balance. If we don’t learn that lesson, we are doomed.