Fridges, Ozone, and Diplomats

How did something as scientifically rooted and complex as Ozone depletion chemistry, whose effect was hard to measure, poorly understood at the moment, and with strong commercial dependencies, turn out to be named by the UN as the “single most successful international agreement?” Was it the science, the way we presented it? The public understanding of the complexity? How is it different from the climate change case? Both cases, climate change and ozone depletion, are at the core a “tragedy of the commons” cases were the individual upside benefit is local, and the common downside damage is global. We emit CO2, or used CFC aerosols, because we want to use the car, or use fridges. There is a local benefit. Our actions, however, impact the global common space, everywhere, regardless if they participated in the emissions or not. Furthermore, the damage happens after some time, slowly, so it is much harder to be conscious of the global downsides than it is to be aware of the immediate local benefits.

This case study of global damage to the world starts with fridges: to cool down the food in our fridges there is a loop system that circulates gas into wider tubes inside the refrigerator and narrow ones outside. When a gas expands in the wider tubes inside the fridge, it absorbs heat, and when it contracts or condensates in the narrow outside tubes, it releases heat. That’s why the back-metal grill on fridges is warmer, and the inside colder. This is similar to when heated air rises in the bathroom and it condenses on the top half of your mirror or your wall when it transfers back the heat. The key that allowed the invention of cheap fridges, in the 1920s, was the discovery of a gas that evaporates easily, so it is an efficient heat transport, but also that is not flammable, stable, easy to produce, and nontoxic.

 It is worth taking a small detour to note the social context and the relation with cars. In the 1920s many house appliances were invented, like the electric iron, washing machine, radio, vacuum cleaner, the model T car, electric toaster… the USA economy was booming, and society demanded more services, more entertainment. Former luxuries became more available to more middle- or working-class people. Prominently among these, cars quickly became the anchor of more freedom and new social patterns. Cars underwent continued pressures to become better, cheaper, faster, easier to use. It is in these times of change, in 1922, that a young engineer, Thomas Midgley Jr., discovered the significant improvements of adding a lead-based compound to gasoline. It made cars run smoother, with more power and efficiency.

Lead had been known to be extremely toxic since at least Greek times, but it also has very useful industrial properties: it is a ubiquitous element, and much easier to extract than its alternatives. The usefulness of this toxic substance created a complicated relationship with us. We used it in paints, in closing cans of food, soldering jewels… and now, cars. We want smoother-running cars, but we need to manage the risks. Not surprising, then, that one year after the discovery of the many benefits of leaded gasoline, shortly after receiving the 1923 Nichols Medal award, Midgley had to take an extended vacation to recover from his lead poisoning. During this decade, there is a long history of stories of leaded gasoline, the massive profits it generated due to the patents, the greater performance, and the many awards Midgley got for it. But also the continuous cases of lead poisoning, and related hallucinations, insanity, and deaths at the leaded gasoline factories. In 1924, in a press conference to demonstrate its safety, Midgley poured the gasoline additive to his hands and inhaled for sixty seconds. Soon after, he had to leave again temporarily to treat his lead poisoning. Leaded gasoline, fueled by strong industry incentives and pressures, would continue to be massively produced and demanded until the forced phasing out legislation in the ’70s. Lead from the combustion gases of gasoline cars from those years can be found today worldwide, from the dust in your house to the ice in the poles.

Midgley was, by all accounts, a prolific engineer, and indeed he accumulated over 100 patents to his name over his lifetime. A few years after the leaded gasoline discovery, he turned to the problem of fridges. And he, again, made a revolutionary discovery. The product was not in itself a revolution. It was more a refinement and aggregation of the properties of known substances. The revolution was more the process to efficiently create that particular new family of compounds, the Chlorofluorocarbons (called CFCs)—and commercially called “Freon.” With the discovery also came very profitable patents. No known natural processes produce CFCs in significant quantities. Hence the vast majority of CFC in existence today is human-made. CFCs are, by fridge-friendly design, easy to evaporate and to absorb energy, they have low toxicity, and are non-reactive to other substances. To demonstrate its safety, in 1930, Midgley inhaled Freon and then blew a candle. Soon, Freon was used across the industry as a standard refrigerant. Furthermore, this new gas also proved very attractive for other uses such as air conditioners, aerosol sprays, asthma inhalers, fire extinguishing equipment, and many other commercials and military applications. Indeed, Midgley won the Perkin Medal in 1937 for this work. Soon after, in 1941, he also won the Priestley Medal, the Willard Gibbs Award in 1942, and in 1944 was elected to the US National Academies of Sciences, and President of the American Chemical Society.

Unbeknownst to the world, the essential design properties of CFCs proved the most harmful. Being so stable, CFCs mix in the air and remain stable for many decades. As they mix in the air, when they reach the upper atmosphere, the more energetic ultraviolet light of the Sun can finally break it down. Ultraviolet light is absorbed up there by oxygen-producing ozone, hence removing this solar radiation in the lower parts of the atmosphere. When CFCs reaches the same regions where the ozone is, it also gets broken apart. The CFC pieces, unlike the whole molecule, are very reactive, and their mere presence makes ozone break apart, disabling their blocking effect, which in turn produces more reactions. It is now understood that a single CFC molecule released on the ground takes roughly seven years to reach the upper atmosphere and can stay there for a century, catalyzing the destruction of 100,000 ozone molecules. This weakening of ozone protection happens everywhere in the upper atmosphere, but much more so with the presence of extremely cold clouds, like the ones in the poles during spring, when these clouds interact with the solar light. Hence the Ozone hole happens more in the poles. At its worst moment, the Antarctic Ozone layer lost 70% of its protecting strength. With less ozone to protect us, more ultraviolet radiation reaches the ground, which can produce sunburns, cataracts and several types of cancers in humans. It also affects phytoplankton and marine animals, and even crops as ultraviolet radiation, for example, can kill the bacteria upon which some plants, such as rice, depend on to grow. Moreover, CFCs are also potent greenhouse gases that trap heat in the lower atmosphere, contributing to climate change that in turn, when trapping heat in the lower atmosphere, reduce the temperature in the upper parts, contributing to more active CFC ozone depletion.

Although this chapter is about the success of the response to this global threat, it was worth to note how much a single person, the engineer Midgley, contributed to useful advances to society, but also extreme damage to the atmosphere. As J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian, puts it, he had “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.” Several of his key creations proved fatal in the end. Ironically, as Bill Bryson tells in the book Short History of Nearly Everything, Midgley died from his resourcefulness. In 1940, he contracted polio, a disease that left his legs paralyzed for life. In his inventiveness, he devised a pulley system to assist himself in bed, and in 1944, aged fifty-five and before he knew about the problems with the ozone, he got entangled on his device and died strangling himself.

It wasn’t until 1973 when research scientists started to understand, and worry, about the effects of CFC once they reach the upper atmosphere. The hypothesis of CFC weakening the ozone layer was still unproven. The chemistry of CFC-Ozone is very complex and took many more years to understand it, especially its effects on polar clouds. The dangers of more ultraviolet light were, however, more understood. Hence, if true, an increase of radiation-induced cancer and other problems were a logical consequence of increased CFCs. Meanwhile, usage of these gases had increased dramatically for its many benefits and applications, proving to also be very profitable to the patent holders, namely the company DuPont. Like in the case of HIV appearance, the industry pressures were strong. Millions of people used daily CFC-dependent products, from fire extinguishers to aerosol sprays or refrigeration devices. Moreover, there were no comparable alternatives. The chairman of DuPont, in 1975, called the CFC-Ozone hypothesis “a science fiction tale… a load of rubbish… utter nonsense,” and so complained many other industrial users of CFCs.

Unlike the HIV case, the same year that the first scientific findings pointing to an impending crisis were published, in 1973, the authors were asked to testify before US Congress, after which funding became available to explore the issue of ozone depletion and CFCs. This was a very positive response, probably among the key early precursors of the positive outcome. It is hence worth exploring a bit further how this came to be. At first glance, it would be accurate, and true, to claim that a key difference is that AIDS only affected a minority group that also was ostracized (gay community). While this can be the case, and draws a valuable lesson to understand the differences, we will see that other factors compounded to the positive response to the ozone crisis.

It is very possible that supersonic commercial flights played a key role. In the ’60s in the USA, a heavily federally subsidized program was put in place to create supersonic commercial flights. A similar project was started in Europe by French and British governments (what later became the Concorde). Besides the political and economic struggles of the program, the environmental impact had many worrying fronts: from sonic booms, or engine noise to the poisonous exhaust gases of the new fuel that was needed. Thus, in 1971, the US Congress commissioned a scientific comprehensive study of the climate impact of these supersonic flights. It involved 500 scientists and two years. When the report came out in December 1974, the executive summary, meant for the public, ignored several of the key scientific concerns raised on the report itself (over 9,000 pages). The report included evidence linking weakening of the stratospheric natural filters of solar radiation with cancer. When this scientific report, and the controversy of its misleading summary, came out, there was a growing environmental movement and an increased awareness of environmental problems due to human activities. It was also in 1974 that the young researcher Mario Molina and his supervisor published an article in Nature with a proposed mechanism of how the CFC might destroy the ozone (he later won the 1995 Nobel Prize for this discovery). At the time, January 1975, the parallel issue of CFCs on spray cans took enough prominence to grant another independent study by the National Science Foundation. It was aptly named “Interagency Task Force on Inadvertent Modification of the Stratosphere” and was joined by another study by the National Academies of Sciences. This growing tradition of creating merged commissions of scientists, policymakers and media prepared the foundations for the CFCs-ban success. By 1976 the US (and Canada, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway) upon learning of these recent studies on the impacts of CFC, officially started considering regulations for aerosol spray cans.

The Reagan administration in the USA proved resistant to regulations in response to this growing set of environmental studies. This was in part based on the tentative nature of the scientific findings, and especially after the National Academies studies downgraded the initial estimates of impact from their original report. Moreover, the patented CFCs—Freon—had a rapidly growing set of applications, for which the demand and market was also growing. These growing commercial markets created strong private sector incentives against more regulations, which ultimately was also affecting consumers, who demanded more of those products and didn´t want to see higher prices due to more regulations or special taxes. Finally, in 1978 the US banned CFC-based aerosol sprays, a move that did not happen in Europe, or for other CFC applications. As time moved on, in parallel with growing evidence of the environmental impact, the private sector incentives began to change as the critical Freon patent which protected DuPont’s market position, was about to expire in 1979, while the demand for this gas temporarily diminished with the aerosol ban. The private sector incentive of product development, for which the concept of “patent protection” was invented, had then increasing incentive to make a new product. Foreshadowing what could happen in the following years, it became strategical to develop a new product, hence a new patent. If that product proved less harmful, it would also have the backing of the environmentalists and the public sector to pivot the market under the new patent, just as the old one expired.

In 1983, William Ruckelshaus was appointed, again, as the new head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ruckelshaus, from Indianapolis (Indiana, USA), was a Republican attorney with no formal training in science. Instead, right after high school, he served in the army and later studied history at Princeton and law at Harvard. He then worked as an Indiana State Attorney General and was appointed to the Indiana Board of Health. This mix of knowledge of law and health were probably beneficial when he was asked, in 1970, to create and head the EPA. Shortly after its creation the agency banned the use of the very effective but poisonous pesticide “DDT,” overruling the decision of a judge that found it not to be a confirmed hazard, setting a strong precedent of public safety over industrial interest. In 1973, following the Watergate scandal, Ruckelshaus left the EPA to be Acting Director of the FBI and shortly after went to the private sector. Back at the EPA in 1983, the Ruckelshaus EPA that had banned DDT pushed for CFC regulations to move forward.

In 1985 new measurements of ozone depletion, or weakening, were reported near the South Pole, and it was speculated to be related to CFCs. In the media, for this first time, this was widely echoed and reported as the NASA discovery of the “Antarctic Ozone Hole.” This happened in parallel with several scientific and policy-making workshops that helped globalize the new research science into regulatory pressures globally for all potentially signatory countries. Those countries which had banned spray cans were keen to push for regulations, while several European nations favored weaker reductions due to economic and political reasons.

In 1986, the EPA published a study estimating 150 million skin cancer diagnoses and more than 3 million deaths in the U.S. population born before 2075. Meanwhile, a series of expeditions to Antarctica confirmed the ozone hole due to human-made CFCs. With this clearer linkage to cancer, and the fact that few companies were the patent holders (and now potentially liable), the industry began to support regulation and production bans, while more countries joined. In 1985 it was agreed to phase out completely all CFCs by 2000 (2010 in less developed countries). That year, twenty nations and most of the major CFC producers signed the Vienna convention, establishing a framework to negotiate an international regulation on Ozone-affecting substances. With the renewed media attention, eighteen months later in 1987 in Montreal, that agreement was signed. That agreement pledged to freeze production growth and reduce production by 50% by 1999.

This is not to say that all stakeholders quickly changed their minds. Indeed, in 1987, DuPont, at the time the primary producer of CFC, testified in Congress they believed “there is no imminent crisis that demands unilateral regulation.” The lack of good alternatives, and profitable patents from a few powerful industry players, like DuPont, was a constant struggle to replace CFCs with less harmful gases. Parallel to the commercial incentives of these few companies, in 1992, the patent of a new ozone-safe alternative developed by a German technological institute was given to Greenpeace. Greenpeace quickly made this new option, named “Greenfreeze,” open source and started to work with manufacturers to promote it as a replacement of CFCs. Helped by CFC bans rolling out in several countries, usage of Greenfreeze reached 40% of the market worldwide by 2013. In the USA, industry-backed lobbyists managed to delay approval of Greenfreeze usage until 2011.

Since 1987, and the first approval of the agreement in Montreal, this commitment has been reinforced substantially several times in response to more scientific evidence, pressure from NGOs and media reporting. More ozone-depleting substances were added, more countries signed, and more finance mechanisms were given to less developed countries to assist their efforts to phase out controlled substances. The ban on producing CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances came into effect in 1989, the ozone level ceased to get worse in the mid-90s, and began to recover in the 2000s. It is expected to reach pre-CFC levels by 2075, roughly a century after its creation.

To summarize, in 1973 we had the first, partial, and tentative scientific evidence. The evidence grew in parallel to the work of committees mixing scientist, lawmakers, and media, and the shifting commercial incentives and global politics. At first, in the ’70s, several countries, some being primary producers of CFC, began regulating or banning CFC aerosols domestically. While these proved effective in limiting national emissions, it also made clear that the CFC was a global issue that needed a global framework. Then, building on these efforts under the UN Environmental Program, a comprehensive multi-national approach emerged which yielded the 1987 Montreal conference. That year, eleven countries representing two-thirds of all CFCs consumed signed the deal, even before environmental or human impacts were conclusively detected. Since then, we have had both more scientific evidence and, in parallel, reinforced and expanded provisions of the Montreal Protocol, new patent-free green alternatives, and a more demanding public awareness of the link between cancer and CFCs. Today, most ozone-depleting gases are regulated and their emissions eliminated or controlled. It is worth noting that this work is far from complete. Old appliances and in storage still use CFCs, as well as some limited authorized uses for safety and critical assets where alternatives don´t work. Moreover, recent research[i] has found that a specific type of CFC is still being emitted somewhere, probably around Asia. It is hard to know if these are from old storage units or actively being produced against the regulations. This emphasizes the critical role of monitoring and continued research to further understand the dangers, quickly identify violations of the treaties, and act upon them. The tragedy of the commons becomes a collaborative effort to protect the commons.

The first scientific evidence of ozone depletion due to CFCs came with very concrete and scary consequences: skin cancer. These were not complete scientific understandings, and indeed it took many years to gain enough knowledge to model the consequences or the impact of policy decisions properly. In parallel, society, via consumer demands, was also eager and hungry for the products that use the very same compounds that they identified with more cancer through the media. The increasing demand and profits increased in parallel, reinforcing the resistance to act. Hence, the Montreal Protocol not only agreed on the reasons to regulate CFCs but also incorporated, from the start, mechanisms to modify, control and adapt the economy to the increasing scientific evidence. It provided incentives and mechanisms both for government and private sector entities, such as trading mechanisms of existing reserves, differential due dates depending on the economic development of different countries or public funds to support the removal of CFC reserves. Moreover, only signatory countries could trade CFC among themselves. Once the main producers signed up, the rest had to follow suit as they were very dependent on the trading. Differential due dates for different countries implementing CFC reductions proved key as well. Developing countries were given longer phase-out pathways and funding mechanisms. The list of controlled substances and industries was explicit and articulated, giving clear prioritization and equal transparency to all stakeholders involved to get moving. Lastly, and quite importantly, by the time the agreement was signed, several key patents were due to expire, which provided further incentive for the private sector to phase out the old CFC into something new. With a clear global and reinforcing agreement, research on new products, and patents, had a visible design scope and a predictable and profitable global market eager to adopt the new products with safer, greened, and under the Montreal Protocol, like Greenfreeze.

The Montreal Protocol in this sense proved much more effective than the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The Kyoto Protocol is about reducing CO2 mostly by trading emission rights. Every country was given a set diminishing quota, and those emitting more would need to pay to those emitting less for their rights to emit. Those countries that are emitting less tend also to be less developed nations, which also suffer more of the consequences of climate change. Thus, in effect, this protocol imposes an incentive to emit less for polluting countries, and provides finance for those needing it the most, an incentive so they can develop directly into less emitting societies. While the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol is debated, especially against the backdrop of not having any CO2-reduction fully-enforced agreement, it is clear that the Montreal Protocol was able to achieve key results that Kyoto was not. For example, neither US, China, India, or Russia have binding targets, are not signatory members, or failed to ratify their commitments. As outcomes goes, CO2 continues to rise, while CFC levels are unequivocally reduced as results of the Montreal Protocol.[ii]

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