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Protection of the ozone layer

The European Union has a strong commitment to protect the ozone layer and has put in place legislation that is among the strictest and most advanced in the world. Europe has not only implemented what has been agreed under the Montreal Protocol on protecting the ozone layer but has often phased out dangerous substances faster than required.

 

The importance of a healthy ozone layer

The ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects humans and other organisms against ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. In the 1970s scientists discovered that certain man-made chemicals deplete the ozone layer, leading to an increased level of UV radiation reaching the Earth.

Overexposure to UV radiation carries a number of serious health risks for humans. It causes not only sunburn but also greater incidences of skin cancer and eye cataracts.

There are also serious impacts on biodiversity. For example, increased UV radiation reduces the levels of plankton in the oceans and subsequently diminishes fish stocks. It can also have adverse effects on plant growth, thus reducing agricultural productivity. A direct negative economic impact is the reduced lifespan of certain materials like plastics.

Ozone-depleting substances

Gases that damage the ozone layer - ozone-depleting substances (ODS) - have been used in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications, mainly in refrigerators, air conditioners and fire extinguishers. They have also been used as aerosol propellants, solvents and blowing agents for insulation foams.

The main ODS being phased out under the Montreal Protocol are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), halons, carbon tetrachloride and methyl bromide.

The link to climate change

Dramatic cloudscape © iStockphoto

Most man-made ODS are also very potent greenhouse gases. Some of them are up to 14 000 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. Eliminating these substances therefore also contributes significantly to the fight against climate change. The international phase-out of ODS has so far delayed the impact of climate change by 8-12 years.

EU at the forefront

To protect the ozone layer the international community established the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer in 1987. The European Union and its Member States are at the forefront of ozone layer protection with a policy that often goes beyond the requirements of the Montreal Protocol.

Already by 2010, the EU had significantly reduced its consumption of the main ozone-depleting substances, 10 years ahead of its obligation under the Montreal Protocol. Furthermore, the EU has put in place controls on uses of ozone-depleting substances that are not considered as consumption under the Montreal Protocol, such as the use of ODS as a feedstock in the chemical industry. The EU has also gone beyond the requirements of the Protocol in banning the use of the toxic chemical methyl bromide for any kind of fumigation.

EU legislation has not only been very effective in controlling ozone-depleting substances but has also acted as a driver for the development of innovative technologies. These include alternatives to methyl bromide, new blowing agents for insulation foam, CFC-free metered dose inhalers for the treatment of asthma, and the creation of innovative non-halon fire-fighting systems, for example on ships and airplanes.

But the job is not done yet …

The global consumption of ODS has been reduced by some 98% since countries started taking action under the Montreal Protocol. As a result the atmospheric concentration of the most aggressive types of ODS is falling and the ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. Nevertheless, it is not expected to recover fully before the second half of this century.

Much remains to be done to ensure the continued recovery of the ozone layer and to reduce the impact of ODS on climate change. Actions needed are:

  • Ensuring that the existing restrictions on ODS are properly implemented and worldwide use of ODS continues to be reduced;
  • Ensuring that ODS are replaced with climate-friendly alternatives;
  • Recovering ODS from existing equipment and buildings;
  • Preventing illegal trade in ODS;
  • Reducing use of ODS in applications that are not considered as consumption under the Montreal Protocol.

Research

The European Commission supports research projects in the field of ozone layer protection. You can find some examples of these projects below.

  • The RECONSILE project aimed to improve model representations of key processes dominating chemistry, microphysics and the dynamics of Arctic stratospheric ozone loss.
  • SHIVA aimed to reduce uncertainties in present and future stratospheric halogen loading and ozone depletion resulting from climate feedbacks between emissions and transport of ozone depleting substances (ODS).
  • ICEPURE investigated the impact of climatic and environmental factors on personal ultraviolet radiation exposure and human health.