The crucial link between agriculture and the ozone layer

By Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Montreal/Nairobi 24 March 2004

It may be hard at first glance to link the tomatoes, peppers and strawberries on your dinner table plate with the high-flying high ozone layer.

Even harder to connect the popular pastime of golf with the thin gassy shield, found up to 50 km above our heads, that protects all life on Earth from damaging levels of ultra violet sunlight.

However for governments meeting today (24 March) in the Canadian city of Montreal, the crucial link between agriculture and the global effort to repair the ozone layer is the single issue on everyone’s mind.

At the heart of the discussions will be a pesticide known as methyl bromide, used by vegetable and fruit growers, tobacco farmers and producers of grass for golf courses to fumigate the soil.

More precisely, debate will revolve around how much of this ozone-damaging substance should be approved for continued use in developed countries beyond 2005.

This was the date, agreed some years ago, when methyl bromide was due to be completely phased out.

But some farmers, notably in Australia, Europe and the United States, are worried. Worried that for some crops the ozone-friendly alternatives are currently inadequate, unavailable or too costly to deploy.

The farmers, ranging from strawberry growers to pepper farmers, are asking for more time, and their governments are seeking so-called Critical Use Exemptions to ease the their path to total phase-out.

The levels of exemptions being sought are somewhere around 12,000 tonnes of methyl bromide, amounting to over a third of the total annual amount of the pesticide that was in use in 1991 when the phase-out began.

That is why the world’s eyes, including those of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), are on Montreal, the city where the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer was negotiated in 1987.

The Protocol, developed after the discovery of an ozone hole over Antarctica and its occurrence linked to human-made chemicals, has without doubt been one of the great environmental success stories.

Indeed, it has been a flagship treaty for the UNEP and 185 countries have introduced national laws to save the Earth’s protective shield.

It has involved not only the cooperation of governments but industry and the public in phasing out ozone depleting chemicals.

Developed countries have, with the exception of small-scale specialist uses, already phased out Chloroflurocarbons (CFCs). These were once common in everything from hair sprays to cans of furniture polish.

The chemicals industry, initially convinced that switching to alternative substances would be economically crippling, rose to the challenge and developed ozone–friendly products.

Developing countries are also successfully implementing their phase-outs according to agreed targets and time-tables with assistance from a financial mechanism known as the Multilateral Fund.

The fund, established in 1990, has so far spent well over US $ one billion in helping poorer countries switch from production and use of ozone damaging chemicals.

The result of all this effort has been outstanding. In 1986, the total consumption of CFCs world-wide was about 1.1 million tonnes. By the end of the 1990s this had come down to about 146,000 tonnes.

Without this action, CFC consumption could have reached about three million tonnes in 2010 and eight million in 2060 resulting in an up to 70 per cent loss of stratospheric ozone and up to 50 per cent more ultra violet light hitting Earth.

The health consequences of inaction would have been horrendous.

It would, by 2050, have led to possibly as many as 19 million more cases of non-melanoma cancer, 1.5 million of melanoma cancer and 130 million more eye cataracts cases.

Mercifully, this will not happen. We are now on target for a recovery of the ozone layer by the middle of the century.

For methyl bromide, alternatives are also being developed and used by farmers across the world. These range from environmentally-friendly treatments to the steam sterilization of soils.

The seeking of exemptions is not without precedent. CFCs are still used for many asthmatics’ inhalers.

Governments have approved so-called essential use exemptions here. But there is no suggestion that these have undermined the protocol. Indeed the quantities allowed will have been reduced from 15,000 tonnes in 1996 to about 4,000 tonnes in 2004.

We fully expect governments will adopt a similar stance with respect to Critical Use Exemptions of methyl bromide so that whatever levels of exemptions are approved, are approved under the strict understanding that tight time limits and timetables go hand in hand.

In other words, that the decisions taken in Montreal put us on a firm trajectory towards a declining level of this ozone depleting substance.

Maintaining the integrity of the Protocol is paramount. Otherwise, the world community is left with only a partial success and a job unfinished.

This could have consequences beyond the ozone layer, including all our goals and plans for sustainable development. Sending a signal that our other aspirations such as delivering safe and sufficient water to 1.1 billion people, reversing the rate of loss of wildlife and reducing the threats of global warming, can also be put on hold.


 

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