NEW RELEASES – “Just as humans need sunblock, the Earth needs protection too. Earth’s sunscreen is called ozone.”1 This is how NASA describes, succinctly and eloquently, the ozone layer and the function it has as an essential factor for the safeguard of the planet. Life on Earth is protected by the ozone layer which blocks the harmful UV radiation in the high atmosphere. The importance of the ozone layer is today remarked by the global community and the relevance of this day should not be underestimated. We should all take action to improve life conditions on Earth and, by adopting a forward-looking approach, preserve the planet we all live in for the future generations.
Thinning ozone layer
Given the importance of the ozone layer and the fundamental role it plays for the protection of the planet, what damage have we caused to it and how have we managed to affect it? As National Geographic explains, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are “chemicals found mainly in spray aerosols heavily used by industrialized nations for much of the past 50 years.”2 The CFCs constitute the primary culprits in ozone layer breakdown. In fact, when the CFCs reach the upper atmosphere, they are exposed to ultraviolet rays and this exposure causes them to break down into different substances, one of them being chlorine. Subsequently, the chlorine reacts with the oxygen atoms in ozone and rips apart the ozone molecule. This is how the ozone layer has been damaged in the past decades and the decreasing amount of ozone in the atmosphere has caused UV rays to reach the Earth more easily, affecting the eco-system and climate of the planet. This is what effectively happens in the atmosphere and how we scientifically explain it.
When a few decades ago a group of scientists found out that the ozone layer was thinning, the global community realised that something had to be done. Knowing that the CFCs were emanated prominently by factories and big industrial estates, there was the need to reduce the discharge of CFCs. Interestingly, “about 90 percent of CFCs currently in the atmosphere were emitted by industrialized countries in the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States and Europe.”3 These countries banned CFCs by 1996 and signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987 (reviewed in 2007.) As a consequence, the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere is now reducing. However, “scientists estimate it will take another 50 years for chlorine levels to return to their natural levels.”4
Moreover, in 1994, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 16 September the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, commemorating the date of the signing of the Montreal Protocol. In accordance to this decision, “states were invited to devote the Day to promote activities in accordance with the objectives of the Protocol and its amendments.”5 Importantly, as the UN pointed out, “The phaseout of controlled uses of ozone depleting substances and the related reductions have not only helped protect the ozone layer for this and future generations, but have also contributed significantly to global efforts to address climate change.”6 However, as mentioned above, scientists have reminded us all that much still needs to be done to further improve the conditions of the ozone layer. Thus, today should be not only a celebration of the goals achieved in the past years, but also a reminder of the fragility of the “shield of gas” that protects the earth, helping preserve life.
Preserve the planet, enforce human rights
The OHCHR has pointed out numerous times that “all human beings depend on the environment in which we live. A safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation.”7 Evidently, the full enjoyment of human rights depends on the environment and human-made changes affecting the planet should, therefore, concern us. The links between environment and human rights have been hugely highlighted and in recent years many studies on climate change have helped to raise awareness on the current situation. As Kofi Annan stated, “I have repeatedly stressed that climate change is a global and all-encompassing threat to life, to our water and food supplies, to our health, security, prosperity and stability. It should be given highest priority.”8 Moreover, importantly, “the number and scope of international and domestic laws, judicial decisions, and academic studies on the relationship between human rights and the environment have grown rapidly.”9
In spite of the improvements and progress enacted by the international community, Jon Shanklin, one of the scientists who discovered the thinning of the ozone layer in 1985, released a new warning. As reported by the Guardian, he stated: “Yes, an international treaty was established fairly quickly to deal with the ozone hole, but really the main point about its discovery was that it shows how incredibly rapidly we can produce major changes to our atmosphere and how long it takes for nature to recover from them. […] Clearly, we still do not understand the full consequences of what we did then because we are still inflicting major changes on the atmosphere. Then it was chlorofluorocarbons; today it is greenhouse gases.” 10
To conclude, since today should be taken into the utmost consideration for future initiatives as well, the example of South Africa as a country that has tried to implement effective measures to improve the conditions of the ozone layer and raise awareness on the matter will be provided. The Government of South Africa recognised the importance of the ozone layer and numerous times provided useful information for its citizens on why it is essential for life. For instance, they explained how “Excessive UV-B radiation leads to: More skin cancers and eye cataracts. Less productivity of plants. Loss of immunity to diseases. Adverse effects on plastics.”11 Hence, the South African Government, and specifically the Department of Environmental Affairs, openly stated that there is “a Constitutional responsibility to protect the right of all South Africans to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being, and to protect the environment through legislative and other measures that prevent, amongst others, air pollution and ecological degradation.”12 The essential steps taken by South Africa are incredibly important and we wish for these measures to further inspire other states around the world to take responsibility, act upon the need to preserve the ozone layer and, consequentially, safeguard fundamental human rights.
1NASA (2014) “Celebrate World Ozone Day”. Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/larc/celebrate-world-ozone-day/#.V9aogzVnQwI
2 National Geographic (2015) “Ozone Depletion. Losing Earth's Protective Layer”. Available at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/ozo...
5United Nations (2015) “2015 Theme: 30 Years of Healing the Ozone Together -"Ozone: All there is between you and UV.” Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/ozoneday/
7OHCHR (2012) “Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment”. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Pages/SRenviron...
8 MCKIE Robin (2015) “Thirty years on, scientist who discovered ozone layer hole warns: ‘it will still take years to heal’ ”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/18/scientist-who-discov...
9 OHCHR, Op.Cit
10 MCKIE, Op.Cit.
11Department of Environmental Affairs, Republic of South Africa (2015) “International Day for the Preservation of Ozone Layer 2015”. Available at: https://www.environment.gov.za/event/international/2015internationalday_...
MR - Research Assistant at CIPADH
DAVIS Nicola (2015) “Kofi Annan: ‘We must challenge climate-change sceptics who deny the facts’ ”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/03/kofi-annan-interview...
Department of Environmental Affairs, Republic of South Africa (2015) “International Day for the Preservation of Ozone Layer 2015”. Available at: https://www.environment.gov.za/event/international/2015internationalday_...
MCKIE Robin (2015) “Thirty years on, scientist who discovered ozone layer hole warns: ‘it will still take years to heal’ ”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/apr/18/scientist-who-discov...
Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Available at: http://www.un-documents.net/mpsdol.htm
NASA (2014) “Celebrate World Ozone Day”. Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/larc/celebrate-world-ozone-day/#.V9aogzVnQwI
National Geographic (2015) “Ozone Depletion. Losing Earth's Protective Layer”. Available at: http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/ozo...
OHCHR (2012) “Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment”. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Pages/SRenviron...
Ozone Secretariat, UNEP. Available at: http://ozone.unep.org/
United Nations (2015) “2015 Theme: 30 Years of Healing the Ozone Together -"Ozone: All there is between you and UV.” Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/ozoneday/