2017 marked the 30th anniversary of both the Montreal Protocol and action in Australia to protect the ozone layer. CSIRO Honorary Fellow, Dr Paul Fraser, reflects on three decades of progress.

In 1974, a landmark paper appeared in the journal Nature, describing how increasing concentrations of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the atmosphere could potentially destroy the life-sustaining stratospheric ozone layer. This paper inspired me and set my career-changing research path for many years to come.

It highlighted the need for quality atmospheric monitoring of ozone depleting substances and this, together with carbon dioxide-induced climate change research, were the pivotal issues leading to the establishment in 1976 of Australia’s atmospheric monitoring station at Cape Grim, Tasmania.

Over the past 30 years, there have been dramatic improvements in our capacity to accurately measure atmospheric concentrations of a variety of greenhouse and ozone depleting gases. At various times the introduction of new, CFC-replacing industrial gases – HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) and HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) – began before there were techniques to measure their impact on the atmosphere.

We were fortunate and, as it turned out, far-sighted, when we established an archive of pristine air samples at Cape Grim in 1978, that continues through to today, enabling CSIRO to determine the complete atmospheric history of these new species, leading to accurate estimations of their environmental impacts.

As a result, we have been able to identify a number of environmental issues and provided policy makers with evidence to justify prompt policy action. We established, for example, that HFC-23 (CHF3) appeared in the atmosphere long-before its initial use in industry (refrigeration) and was growing at rates that could not be explained by known sources.

This led to the discovery that it was being created inadvertently as a by-product of HCFC-22 (CHClF2) production (a widely used refrigerant) and, as a result, governments and the United Nations were able to act to reduce, capture and destroy these emissions.

So, what can the current atmospheric readings tell us about the effectiveness of what we have done globally and in Australia?

Encouragingly, since the introduction of Montreal Protocol restrictions on CFC production, atmospheric CFC concentrations have declined at a rate that suggests a very low level rate of residual emissions. As a result, the ozone hole is on track to be closed as predicted by late-2050s.

Global concentrations of HCFCs are increasing, but at a declining rate, that promises a halt in their growth over the next decade, followed by a predicted decline. Global concentrations of HFCs are increasing rapidly leading to their inclusion in the Montreal Protocol, which will curb their production, the fastest, proven route to stabilizing their atmospheric concentrations.

As a result of where Cape Grim is located, 300 km south of the major urban source region of Melbourne, about 15% of the time we can assess the emissions of CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs from the Melbourne area. This is a useful indicator for what is happening across Australia.

The data show that emissions of CFCs and HCFCs are decreasing and emissions from HFCs have flat lined despite the size of the bank increasing. These data clearly show that equipment today is far less leaky than in the past and attempts to improve the service industry through licensing and other actions are clearly working.

This model of industry/science collaboration has been the linchpin for success in ensuring good science and effective policy. Australian industry has actively supported the research at Cape Grim both with financial contributions of over one million dollars and in providing detailed information (some of which was very commercially in confidence) on production and consumption processes.

Industry also actively engaged with the scientific findings and initiated changes as a result – sometimes well in advance of government policy.

Governments, industry and science began working together when there were only model calculations of a potential problem and before there was direct evidence of an issue. This early action, based on the “precautionary principle”, was fundamentally important in taking prompt action to fix the ozone problem before it was dire.

The data that we produced in the past and today helps both government and industry continue to take action to reduce emissions of ozone depleting and greenhouse gases.

About the Author

Dr Paul Fraser researched at CSIRO issues of ozone depletion and climate change from 1974 until he retired in 2015. He, and the atmospheric monitoring station he helped establish at Cape Grim in Tasmania in 1976, have been pivotal in understanding both global and regional emissions of ozone depleting and synthetic greenhouse gases. He is held in extremely high regard in the international scientific community, receiving the US EPA Ozone Protection Award in 2002, the Nobel Peace Prize as a member of the IPCC in 2007, and a UNEP Science Leadership Award in 2017. He is still very active in research as an Honorary Fellow at CSIRO.

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