Ozone Conference: Conference Three

The Ozone Conference took place in 1988 at the Royal Institute of British Architects and was sponsored by FOE, Greenpeace and the Consumers Association, the first time that these three organisations had joined forces on an environmental/health issue.

The photograph below shows the scientist who first discovered the ozone hole over Antarctica, Joe Farman on the right.  RRJ is in the middle and Professor Robert (Bob) Watson is on the left.  Professor Watson went on to become the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) but his re-appointment was blocked by President George Bush in 2002 under pressure from the oil company Exxon. Professor Watson is now HMG advisor to DEFRA.

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The three-day conference achieved considerable publicity and was instrumental in persuading the UK government to sign up to the Montreal Protocol, a UN treaty banning the use of CFC’s and other ozone depleting chemicals. The conference also included a session on global warming chaired by Sir John Maddox FRS, the then editor of Nature. Maddox was known to be pro-nuclear but in his opening address to the conference he made some extraordinarily far-sighted, almost prophetic remarks about climate change and the measures that would be needed to deal with it. It should act as a blueprint for future agreements. In 1988, John Maddox spoke as follows (Reference Ozone Depletion. Health and Environmental Consequences. Eds Dr Robin Russell-Jones and Professor Tom Wigley. pp69-70):

Before introducing the first speaker, I would like to say a few words about the subject of this afternoon’s session: global warming.  I wish to clarify my own position on this issue – not least because in the past I have sometimes been accused of being less than friendly towards environmentalists and the issues they espouse. However, the greenhouse effect is an issue that we ignore at our peril. Certainly, it is a field in which there are many uncertainties, which are unlikely to be resolved quickly. I would not be surprised if by the end of the century it will still be hard to make accurate predictions. Even so, it is exceedingly unlikely that the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere can continue as it is at present without, at some point, there being climatic change – the end-point of which might be the melting of the ice-caps.  It is my opinion that this prospect is so serious that, whatever the uncertainties in the scientific predictions or modelling may be, doubts about how much carbon dioxide is recycled through the biosphere and so on, it is essential soon to work out a framework  in which it will be possible at some point in the future to control the way in which carbon dioxide and other gases are allowed to accumulate in the atmosphere.

In many ways the Montreal Protocol is a valuable precedent for the kind of convention that will in due course have to deal with greenhouse gases. Obviously the problem of global warming has much greater implications economically. Even so, despite the uncertainties that persist, it is by no means too soon to begin embarking now on the negotiations and the kind of agreements that will be necessary to regulate the greenhouse problem. Of course this may prove quite difficult. It will not be simple to prevent countries by mutual agreement from releasing carbon dioxide and other materials into the atmosphere.  Whereas the CFC’s that lead to depletion of ozone are relatively unimportant economically, the control of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will require much harder decisions to be taken.

Paradoxically, the negotiations should begin even before the scientific side of the problem has been fully resolved. The Organiser of this Conference (RRJ) is anxious that I shouldn’t use this occasion as an opportunity to promote the building of nuclear power stations. This is a very interesting question, but it is only part of the equation. Let me just say this: if there is an international agreement, based, for example, on national quotas of allowable carbon dioxide releases per year, then every country will be free to respond to this challenge in its own way. We have learnt enough about energy consumption in the past 15 years to know that there is no one recipe that holds for all time in any one country and indeed, that countries differ enormously in the extent to which they rely on fuel efficiency, on nuclear power, or on renewable energy. Indeed, it may even be possible to meet quota requirements by scrubbing carbon dioxide from the gases in power stations. The method used is not the most important thing. It seems to me that the greenhouse problem and the possibility that this will lead to the melting of the two surviving ice-caps, is sufficiently serious to deal with as a single problem, and not complicate it with debates as to how individual countries meet their obligations under any internationally agreed quota system. That is all I want to say by way of introduction to this afternoon’s session, which promises to be most interesting.

Perhaps Maddox’s only error was to underestimate the difficulties that would be encountered persuading countries to sign – particularly the big emitters such as the US and China – and those with a huge vested interest in the continued burning of fossil fuels such as Canada and Saudi Arabia.

International negotiations began well and in 1992 the Earth Summit in Rio published the following agreement by the participating countries:

“The ultimate objective of this convention is the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

However, the agreement was never implemented. Despite the Kyoto Protocol and the best efforts of the United Nations, annual emissions of carbon dioxide have risen 49% since 1990, the baseline year for the Earth Summit. By any standards that is a spectacular political failure. The deal recently thrashed out at the UN Conference (COP 17)  in Durban, South Africa (December 2011) allows the major polluters – China, the US and India) to continue emitting carbon without any restrictions whatsoever until 2020 by which time it wll be “game over” and irreversible climate change will be unavoidable.  Even bankers and economic correspondents will notice this because, as Maddox clearly foresaw, when the Greenland ice-sheet melts, world sea levels will rise by seven metres  and when the Western Antarctica ice-sheet melts sea levels will go up by another six metres.

In retrospect, it was possibly over-ambitious to attempt to reach a unanimous agreement  involving 194 nation states on legally-binding measures to be taken to mitigate climate change. The Montreal Protocol  was successful because readily available substitutes for CFC’s were available. However, the substitutes HCFC’s and HFC’s are potent greenhouse gases and they still have not been banned. Furthermore, when their continued use is discussed under the Montreal Protocol government representatives refuse to discuss their global warming potential because that is a separate protocol (The Kyoto Protocol). This leaves scientists involved in these discussions severely frustrated. They are allowed to present the science and the likely consequences but they are not allowed to tell the politicians what needs to happen. That apparently is outside of their remit and this may go a long way to explain why the UN process has proved such an abject failure.

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