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Mapping the hole in the ozone layer
Mapping the hole in the ozone layer, 1979 to 2008NASA

Ozone: ‘My hole is tightening’

The hole in the ozone layer is on track to close in the next two decades, following a decisive global effort that ‘sets a precedent for climate action’

You’d be forgiven for feeling a sense of inevitable doom whenever the climate crisis crosses your mind. It’s easy to lose hope when the government is failing to deliver on its emissions commitments (and meanwhile, the prime minister is taking a private jet to Leeds) and the only glimmers of optimism involve harebrained schemes or radically changing the way we live. But now, finally, some good news!

On Monday, it was announced that the hole in Earth’s ozone layer – once the centrepiece of our environmental fears – is on track to be fully healed over most of the world in the next two decades. As laid out in a report by the UN, it will have recovered across the planet by 2040, barring the polar regions, where the layer is the thinnest. It’s projected to fully heal over the Arctic by 2045, followed by the Antarctic in 2066.

Why is this such good news? Well, the hole in the ozone layer meant that we were exposed to dangerous ultraviolet rays emanating from the sun. The root causes of the hole – industrial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs – have also been linked to the greenhouse effect, meaning that getting rid of them has a positive side effect on global warming as well. Maybe more importantly, though, the ozone layer healing proves that, when humanity does decide to take action, it’s possible to reverse some of the harm we’ve done to our planet since the Industrial Revolution.

The movement to save the ozone layer kicked into gear in the late 1970s and 80s, when scientists realised that it was being depleted by chemicals such as CFCs. Thanks to fears that increased UV radiation could cause skin cancer and broader ecological issues, the ozone-depleting chemicals were quickly banned, and in 1989 an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol was made, which has helped to phase out 99 per cent of the harmful substances to date.

“Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action,” says professor Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a statement on the good news. “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.”

Others have lauded the international response to patch up the hole in the ozone layer as “the most successful environmental treaty in history”, suggesting that it should bring a renewed enthusiasm to the global effort to curb the effects of the climate crisis, and our ability to work together for a universal goal.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that reversing carbon emissions will be as easy as cutting out CFCs. For the most part, ozone-depleting chemicals were produced by just a few companies – used as refrigerants, solvents, and in aerosol sprays – whereas fossil fuels are embedded in just about every part of human society, representing a significantly bigger challenge.