Superheroes of our own

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The 30-year fight to restore the ozone layer shows how concerted action can tackle the biggest environmental issues of our age.

The white-coated scientist explained calmly to the trigger-happy superheroes that the deadly menace they had come to Earth to fight was already under control.

“In the 80s, the global community came together to address the destruction of the ozone layer,” Dr. Sharma said. “The 80s? Did they all have cool hairdos?” quips the Star Lord.

The science and politics of the atmosphere can be rather sober subjects. But a dash of humour and imagination is helping spread the good news that determined global action really can save the planet.

UN Environment has marked the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the accord that has phased out chemicals that harm the protective ozone layer, by commissioning a special edition of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic strip.

Produced in partnership with Marvel Comics, readers can follow the Star Lord, Iron Man, Gamora and their fellow guardians as they discover that humans are the real superheroes who have tackled the issue.

“The fight against ozone depletion shows the power of international action when it has the support of industry and the public,” says Tina Birmpili, who leads UN Environment’s Ozone Secretariat, under which the Protocol falls. “We all need to be just as heroic against pollution and climate change.”

The comic strip is part of an anniversary campaign celebrating the achievements of the Protocol and emphasizing its continued relevance also to the goal of combating global warming. So far, more than 22,000 people have become #OzoneHeroes through www.ozoneheroes.org. Visitors to the website can take a quiz to discover their own ozone superpower, create a morph, and share their image. The campaign’s social media reach to date is estimated at over 30 million people.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was agreed on 16 September 1987. The goal was to slash the production and use of chlorofluorocarbons, and other ozone-depleting substances, used in aerosols, refrigeration systems and many other items.

While such innovations brought comfort and convenience to billions, the substances they ran on were pollutants tearing a hole in the ozone layer and allowing harmful ultraviolet radiation to stream through and threaten human health and the environment. Thirty years later, and the nations of the world – all of whom signed the protocol – have eliminated nearly 99 per cent of ozone-depleting substances. Scientists believe the ozone layer is healing and will return to 1980 levels by about 2070. As a result, millions of cases of skin cancer may be prevented annually.

The Protocol “can claim to be one of the most successful international treaties ever struck,” Mario Molina, one of the scientists who first discovered the ozone hole, writes elsewhere in this edition of Our Planet.

Having set the upper atmosphere on the road to recovery, the Protocol has a new mission to prevent up to 0.5° Celsius in global warming by the end of the century, a significant contribution to the global effort to prevent dangerous climate change.

Hydrofluorocarbons became widely used substitutes for ozone-depleting substances, but these are also potent greenhouse gases. In October 2016, after long negotiations, the parties to the Montreal Protocol signed the Kigali Amendment to phase them down.

The Amendment commits countries to cutting the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons by more than 80 per cent over 30 years. The deal includes targets and timetables to replace them with more planet-friendly alternatives, and an agreement by rich countries to help finance the transition in developing countries.

More than 20 countries have now ratified the amendment, crossing the threshold for it to enter into force on 1 January 2019. Developed countries will start reducing hydrofluorocarbons as early as 2019. Developing countries will start later. It is another ambitious undertaking that requires sustained, concerted efforts from current and future generations. As with fixing the ozone hole, Earth’s inhabitants will need to perform the heroics themselves. And success might mean they are remembered for more than their hairdos.

Help spread the understanding that we are all #OzoneHeroes by visiting http://www.ozoneheroes.org.