the environment

Great Job, Everybody, We Saved the Ozone Layer

A 1989 photo illustration depicting CFCs doing damage to the ozone layer over Antarctica. Photo: Pool DES GAYETS/CHATIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

We did it. Solid science and effective activism followed by decisive action from governments around the world to phase out chlorofluorocarbons has prevented a looming environmental catastrophe that became such a well-known threat it was highlighted in a 1991 episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

On Monday, the United Nations announced that the ozone layer is on track to be restored within about four decades, according to the latest quadrennial ozone-depletion assessment by the World Meteorological Organization:

If current policies remain in place, the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 values (before the appearance of the ozone hole) by around 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic and by 2040 for the rest of the world. Variations in the size of the Antarctic ozone hole, particularly between 2019 and 2021, were driven largely by meteorological conditions. Nevertheless, the Antarctic ozone hole has been slowly improving in area and depth since the year 2000.

So we humans haven’t completely saved the ozone layer just yet, but we’ve stopped screwing it up enough that it will return to the state it was in when disco dancing was still popular — and that’s no small feat. In fact, as environmental activists, scientists, and Al Gore have been saying for years, the worldwide campaign to limit CFCs — ozone-depleting gases that are found in things like hair-spray cans, refrigerants, and solvents — is the environmental movement’s most compelling single success story. Since going into full force in 1989, the Montreal Protocol global ozone treaty has helped reduce CFC use by 99 percent, and now the ozone layer, which shields everything on earth from harmful UV radiation emitted by the Sun, is well on its way to being whole again. (Humans can still screw it up again if we’re careless, however; the WMO report warns, for the first time, of the potential unintended consequences of using geoengineering to stave off global warming.)

The saving of the ozone layer can and should give everyone hope that such movements (and international treaties) are possible, worthwhile, and effective, particularly as the world faces a far more complex and intimidating threat with human-driven climate change. And according to one recent study, banning CFCs may have shaved one degree Celsius off how hot things are about to get on this planet, so that’s a bonus.

As WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said Monday, “Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action.” The power is ours, in other words.

Great Job, Everybody, We Saved the Ozone Layer