Lessons from the past – What can we learn from the environmental action campaign against chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that could help us now against climate change?

by | Jan 12, 2022 | Articles

The environmental action campaign against CFCs began in earnest in 1985 and had largely been won by 2000. One of the questions I’ve been asked is “How did they win that battle so quickly? Are there lessons for those of us fighting against climate change now?”

The CFC story

F.Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina’s seminal 1974 paper “Stratospheric sink for chlorofluorocarbons: chlorine atom-catalysed destruction of ozone” Nature 249 (5460), 810-812 first alerted the world to the danger that CFCs could destroy the ozone in Earth’s stratosphere, leading to an increase in ultraviolet radiation on Earth’s surface. The validity of their work was confirmed in 1976 by the National Academies of Science. Lobbyists on behalf of the chemical industry at the time commented that the evidence was inconclusive and there were no non-toxic substitutes available for use in refrigerators and air-conditioners. Very little happened, despite Rowland and Molina’s efforts to publicise their work, until 1985.

Then J.C. Farman. B.G. Gardiner, and J.D. Shanklin published in 1985 “Large losses of total ozone in Antarctica reveal seasonal ClOx/NOx interaction” Nature 315 (6016). This showed that stratospheric ozone over Antarctica was reduced by 40%. At this point, policy makers took action. In 1987, 56 countries agreed under what became known as the Montreal Protocol to cut CFC production and use in half. In 1990, the Montreal Protocol was strengthened and CFCs were banned in developed countries by 2000 and in developing countries by 2010. Today the use of CFC is banned by 197 countries. The evidence suggests that the ozone layer is slowly recovering.

What went right?

  1. Sanctions were introduced to prohibit trade in certain chemicals with non-signatory countries, which encouraged countries to sign up to the Montreal Protocol quickly.
  2. Satisfactory alternatives to CFC-containing aerosols were already available.
  3. There were civil campaigns to boycott products that used CFCs and the companies that made them, creating commercial incentives to find alternatives for refrigerators and air-conditioners.
  4. The largest producer of products containing CFCs was not financially dependent on those products (as they accounted for only 3% of sales). Retaining consumer support for the other 97% of sales was more important.
  5. A satisfactory alternative for CFCs for refrigerators and air-conditioners was developed in 1986.

What can we learn from this?

1. We need commercial incentives to support climate action. Carbon prices, emissions trading, and carbon tariffs are all ways of discouraging greenhouse gas emissions. Without them, even companies that support climate action have to consider. “How much can we cut back our emissions before the cost of this makes us uncompetitive relative to companies that don’t care? Effective regulation is critical.

2. We need alternatives to our current suite of products that produce greenhouse gases – renewables to replace fossil fuels in energy and heat production, technology powered by electricity, food that results in smaller methane emissions, and so on. We have a lot of the answers we need already. However, the list of alternatives needed for climate action is longer than the list of alternatives needed for CFCs, and more of the list – including big ticket items like cheap, large scale energy storage – is still under development

3. Greenhouse gas producing technologies are a more diffuse target than CFC-containing aerosols, refrigerators and air-conditioners. Often the choice is about which products do more or less harm (rather than some or none, which was the choice for CFC-containing products). Making informed choices is difficult and this makes it harder for consumer action to have an impact. Nonetheless, many companies are driving increased market share through promoting their green credentials. A caveat is the growing need for regulation to prevent greenwashing so that consumers can rely on the information they receive on how they can slow climate change by exercising their purchasing power. (Sometimes we do need governments that tell us what to do.

4. There are large companies whose profitability still depends on blocking limitations on greenhouse gas production, notably in the coal and gas industries. They are deploying lobbyists and making donations to encourage political decisions that favour the continuation of their businesses, regardless of the costs they impose on the rest of the community. The rest of the community needs to force caps on political donations and introduce an anti-corruption agency to prevent the minority imposing increasingly heavy costs on the majority of the community

5. Research into key technologies, such as batteries not dependent on rare elements, continues.

What can you do to help fight climate change?

As an individual: Check out Our Democracy. Sign the petition. Most importantly, whichever party you prefer, don’t vote for politicians that won’t agree to sign up to:

  1. a significant cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, ideally 50% (not just net-zero by 2050)
  2. a cap on political donations
  3. the introduction of an anti-corruption agency.

Then get your own house in order. As an individual, there is a great deal you can do.

As a leader: Manage your own organisation’s emissions. This can be hard work on your own, but our software can make it easier. Hop over to Evalue8 Sustainability and learn how we can track and help you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. You can even reduce your energy bills in that process.

Ready to get going? Then book a meeting.