08/31/2005 02:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Something Good for a Change: The Ozone Hole Is Shrinking

Amid news of Bush administration continuing kowtowing to corporate polluters and potential linkages between Hurricane Katrina and global warming, there’s some good environmental news -- and some lessons to be learned. Reuters reports that “the ozone layer has stopped shrinking,” though it will take decades to start recovering.

An analysis of satellite records and surface monitoring instruments shows the ozone layer has grown a bit thicker in some parts of the world, but is still well below normal levels, the scientists report in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research.

The experts credited, at least in part, the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was ratified by more than 180 nations and set legally binding controls for on the production and consumption of ozone-depleting gases containing chlorine and bromine.

And therein lies at least one useful lesson: Even seemingly intractable environmental problems to international cooperation, even when all the science isn’t perfect.

First, a bit of history. The Montreal Protocol, by phasing out certain chemicals, preserved the stratospheric ozone layer that absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. And yet, while the treaty was under negotiation, the science was still speculative, based on projections from evolving computer models of imperfectly understood atmospheric processes — models that yielded varying, sometimes contradictory predictions each time they were refined.

According to the Earth Institute at Columbia University:

The scientific, economic, technological and political issues involved in the negotiations were staggeringly complex. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and related substances seemed virtually synonymous with modern standards of living. They were ideal chemicals — nonflammable, nontoxic, noncorrosive. In the 1980's, they were finding new applications in thousands of products and processes across dozens of industries, from electronics, refrigeration, insulation, and plastics, to telecommunications, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture. Powerful political and economic interests were aligned against meaningful controls.

Still, within six years after negotiation began, the Montreal Protocol had been ratified by more than 100 nations -- and eventually by 160 -- and the list of controlled substances grew from 8 to more than 90. And despite the dire predictions, the economy didn’t collapse. Indeed, “A veritable technological revolution was unleashed that in only a few years transformed entire industries,” writes the Earth Institute. Among other things, the protocol created the first-ever global environmental fund to assist developing nations, and promoted an unprecedented North-South collaboration in researching and diffusing new technologies that have now made ozone-depleting substances obsolete.

The lessons for climate change couldn’t be more obvious. Addressing environmental challenges needn’t harm economic well-being -- the Bush administration’s principal argument for inaction. Indeed, it can spawn a wealth of innovation and technological development -- in this case, through renewable energy, energy-efficiency technologies, biobased materials, sustainable agriculture techniques, and more. All of which already are happening, despite the lack of U.S. involvement or support.

The ozone story shows that environmental challenges can yield economic benefits as well as ecological ones. And that gaping holes can be closed -- even those that reside in the minds of our leaders.