It’s the greatest environmental success story of our time. Forty years ago, scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer – the stratospheric shield which acts as the earth’s natural sunscreen, filtering out the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and protecting our planet, its ecosystems and its inhabitants from harm. Though sunlight is vital for the survival of all living things, the right dose is crucial. A thinner or incomplete ozone layer puts us at increased risk of skin cancer, cataracts, compromised immune systems, crop damage and a host of other biological and ecological effects. Learn more about how luxury can do its part in protecting the ozone layer
The hole, which hovered over Antarctica, was man-made. It was caused by chemicals used in aerosol products, industrial solvents and cooling systems, such as those found in refrigerators and air-conditioners – all perks of modern life that had been widely embraced by affluent societies. The alarm was raised, and the world responded quickly. By 1985, global governments had established the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and by 1987 had signed and adopted the Montreal Protocol, a groundbreaking treaty which promised to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs), with strict, measurable and time-targeted commitments.
It worked. By the turn of the new millennium, dangerous emissions were in decline and the first evidence was emerging of a halt in ozone damage. Two decades later, the hole has shrunk by more than four million square kilometers. The most recent study indicates that the ozone layer could heal completely by around 2060.
All of which makes for positive headlines today, on International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. While efforts to halt the climate crisis, deal with the fallout of the pandemic and protect the planet for future generations can often feel like an uphill struggle, the story of the ozone layer is proof that significant, worldwide change can be achieved when governments are prepared to take decisive action.
As the United Nations puts it: “In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought such social and economic hardship, the ozone treaties’ message of working together in harmony and for the collective good is more important than ever.” To date, the Montreal Protocol remains the only UN treaty to be ratified by every single country on earth.
Now the threat to the ozone layer is under control, the UN hopes to use a similar approach in tackling climate change. The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol came into force in 2019, this time with the aim of reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) – synthetical chemical compounds which were developed to replace ozone-depleting substances. Despite being ozone-friendly, we now know HFCs to be hugely potent greenhouse gases, with a potential global warming impact thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And so it’s back to the drawing board – or the laboratory – once more.
What role can the luxury market play in all this? For beauty brands, or any company producing aerosol products or using solvents in manufacture, it’s crucial to find sustainable alternatives to both ODSs and HFCs. In the meantime, carbon offsetting is increasingly being used to help balance out the negative effects of climate-warming chemicals – for example Aveda, whose Air Control Hairspray has a net-zero impact through funding renewable wind energy.
Meanwhile for the hospitality sector, investing in eco-friendly air conditioning options (such as evaporative coolers) and carbon neutral refrigeration technology will play a big part in helping scale back greenhouse gas consumption. Natural refrigerants such as ammonia, propane, isobutane and (perhaps confusingly) carbon dioxide are all being touted as potential answers.
It’s an unfortunate irony, that our desire to stay cool poses one of the biggest threats to our warming planet. Over the next 30 years, ten new air conditioners will be sold every second – and demand is rising. A 2018 report by the International Energy Agency found that air conditioners and electric fans account for nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings around the world today, and 10% of global electricity consumption. While cold air at the touch of a button has long been a hallmark of luxury, it’s important that luxury sustainable businesses lead the way in finding more efficient, climate-friendly solutions and don’t allow aggressive air-con to become expected as standard. We need to make temperature-controlled environments less… well, cool.
Beyond this, there are actions all brands can take to honour the ozone layer, today and every day. Less unnecessary travel, particularly by car, as the nitrous oxide and hydrocarbon emissions contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Source locally to minimise transportation of goods and materials. Scrutinise cleaning products for rogue ODSs. Ensure appliances and machines are always up to date, and as energy-efficient as possible.
Finally, to take encouragement from the ozone story and use it to inspire more future change. Through positive, radical action, it is possible to mend our mistakes.