Every year, September 16 is observed as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer – the natural ‘shield’ in the upper atmosphere that protects all life on Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet rays. This is a special year for everyone concerned with the protection of the ozone layer. It marks the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which serves as the international legal framework to protect the ozone layer.
Sri Lanka has played an active role in these global processes, setting an example to other developing countries and even winning international awards. Concerns that human activities were damaging the ozone layer had been raised from the early 1970s, and some Western governments started taking precautionary measures. But the turning point came in 1985, when scientists of the British Antarctic Survey detected a large and still growing gap in the ozone layer over the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.
Although this ‘ozone hole’ was centered over Antarctica, its growth appeared to correspond with a dramatic increase in skin cancer rates in Australia, New Zealand and other countries of the Southern Hemisphere.
" Sri Lanka has played an active role in these global processes, setting an example to other developing countries and even winning international awards.Concerns that human activities were damaging the ozone layer had been raised from the early 1970s, and some Western governments started taking precautionary measures"
The ‘ozone hole’ discovery created many news headlines. It also galvanised governments around the world to take action. The Vienna Convention, adopted in 1985, paved the way for regulating all ozone-depleting chemicals, more than 100 of which were in use in industry (mainly involved in cooling), farming and consumer products.
By the end of 1985, some 20 nations – which included the world’s industrialized countries that were major producers of such chemicals – had signed the Vienna Convention.
Typically, global negotiations under the United Nations take years (global climate talks are a well known example). But they were fast-tracked in the case of ozone.
"Sri Lanka has been acclaimed as a leader in ozone layer protection efforts, and received the Montreal Protocol Implementers Award in 2007"
These culminated in September 1987 with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a legally binding and time-bound instrument under the overall Vienna Convention.
The Montreal Protocol is today seen as a prime example of how good science, well covered by the media, led to specific and sustained policy response. By end 2014, it had been signed and ratified by 197 countries, making it the most widely subscribed international treaty of all time.
Sri Lanka’s Role
Sri Lanka’s accession to the Vienna Convention was on 15 December 1989. On the same day, the country also ratified the Montreal Protocol. From then onwards, Sri Lanka has been an active participant of the global ozone protection efforts. The government later also ratified all the amendments to the Montreal Protocol (i.e. those known as London, Copenhagen, Montreal and Beijing amendments).
The National Ozone Unit (NOU) at the Ministry of Environment was set up in 1994 to act as the national focal point for treaty compliance. It embarked upon a national strategy and action plan for phasing out ozone depleting substances (ODS).
" Providing technical and financial assistance to industries using ODS to phase these out was a core part of this strategy. As Sri Lanka imports all its (relatively modest) ODS needs, the capacity of the Customs Department was strengthened for better monitoring and regulation."
Providing technical and financial assistance to industries using ODS to phase these out was a core part of this strategy. As Sri Lanka imports all its (relatively modest) ODS needs, the capacity of the Customs Department was strengthened for better monitoring and regulation.
Among the developing Asian countries implementing the Montreal Protocol, Sri Lanka was among the first to recognize the value of information, education and communication (IEC) activities.
Much has been done to raise general awareness among the public, and specific awareness among key players such as policy makers, industry managers and technicians using certain ODS gases – for example, those used in air conditioners and refrigerators.
Two decades on, awareness work remains an important part of ozone protection work in Sri Lanka, alongside activities such as law enforcement, industry support, capacity building and compliance monitoring.
Why such emphasis on public education and awareness raising work? If industries are the main users of ozone-damaging chemicals, can’t they be tackled directly?
Ozone layer recovery is a long-term process. Thanks to three decades of preventing action, the damaged ozone layer is slowly and naturally healing. But protection efforts need to be sustained for decades longer.
For this, awareness creation among different target groups is essential. An informed public, as well as enlightened policy makers and industry managers, are an integral part of the successful implementation of Montreal Protocol phase-out targets.
Having successfully phased out a group of chemicals collectively known as CFCs by 2008, Sri Lanka is now working to phase out another category of chemicals, the HCFCs. The treaty target for total phase-out is 2040. Here, too, IEC activities are complementing other interventions covering policy, legal, regulatory, technological and financial aspects.
Hard work over the years by NOU staff and its partners has helped Sri Lanka achieve a basic awareness on ozone protection issues. HCFC phase-out is therefore adopting a more strategic method: focusing on primary user groups, and gradually expanding that engagement to involve others.
For these concerted efforts, Sri Lanka has been acclaimed as a leader in ozone layer protection efforts, and received the Montreal Protocol Implementers Award in 2007. The following year, in 2008, Sri Lanka was appointed as chair of the conference of the Parties (treaty signing countries) held in Montreal, Canada.
I have had the opportunity to be associated with the Sri Lanka NOU’s various communications related activities for much of the past 20 years. While we can draw some satisfaction from progress made so far, more work remains. Changing public attitudes and behaviour is a long and gradual process that requires sustained engagement.
So good communications will continue to play an important part in Sri Lanka’s journey towards protecting the ozone layer.
[Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene has worked as a consultant with the Ministry of Environment and UN Environment Programme in public communication of ozone and climate change messages.]
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