Patch Job

A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider


A Larger Slice

Click to go to interactive infographic. Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies via The Guardian

Click here to go to interactive infographic.
Graphic: Duncan Clark and Kiln, drawing on work by Mike Bostock and Jason Davies
via The Guardian

The infographic above came out in The Guardian, and is an exploration of the role played by private companies, nation-states and state-run companies in the generation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. There are 90 companies listed – all but seven are companies that deal mainly in fossil fuels.

The infographic below is an exercise in refinement. Lars Boelen was reading the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, edition 2013 that came out in early November. He came across the small pie chart here,

Carbon budget for 2 C° Source: IEA via Stormglas

Carbon budget for 2 C°
Source: IEA via Stormglas

which illustrates the ‘remaining budget’ of carbon emissions left for humanity to generate if the goal is to limit a global temperature increase to 2 C°.

Mr. Boelen was irritated by the simplicity of the chart, which had the largest slice allocated to 1750 – 2011.

The pie chart implies, to me at least, that we – meaning the current generations – aren’t necessarily responsible for the cumulative effect of carbon emissions because, after all, this is a process that has been going on since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Why should we take all the blame and by extension, have to make drastic changes?

Mr. Boelen thought the pie chart needed a bit of refinement, and lo, the distribution of culpability looks a bit different when we find out that the vast majority of ‘carbon budget’ has been ‘spent’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘squandered with profligacy’) since 1970.

Almost all the major fossil fuel companies in the top infographic, at least in their original forms, were founded in the glory years of oil and gas discovery between 1870 and 1920, although the past 30 years have seen countless mergers. The companies have grown ever larger. As for nation-states, China accounts for 8.5% of emissions, with a continued rise due to its dependence on coal.

Together, according to the soberly-titled report published in the journal Climate Change, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010, these companies account for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial era.

Half of all emissions have occurred in the past 25 years alone.

So when we hear about how hard it will be to curb emissions, or that ‘this is the way things are done’ and how expensive it will be to change course, keep in mind that there is no long history or tradition behind our current carbon spending spree. This is as new as cars that are still driving on the road today.

Carbon Budget  Graphic: Lars Boelen

Carbon Budget
Graphic: Lars Boelen

Air Absurdum

I read today about an intriguing legal exercise in definitions.

Briefly, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) won a lawsuit that had been filed against it demanding that the commission take steps to reduce greenhouse gases. Travis County District Court decision essentially supported the commission’s view that it could use its own discretion in the implementation of greenhouse gas regulations.

But the commission was not satisfied with the language of the district court’s decision in its favor. Specifically, it claimed that the Judge Gisela Triana had made an “improper declaratory judgment” by including in her decision the comment that the state of Texas responsible for protecting “all natural resources of the state including the air and atmosphere.” qualite_air__093507200_1658_06072010

According to a Texas Tribune article, “Judge Triana agreed with the plaintiffs that a tenet of United States common law known as the public trust doctrine required the government to protect the atmosphere as a resource for public use.

“The commission had disagreed, saying Texas’ duty to protect resources under public trust were “limited to the waters of the state.””

The original lawsuit, the one that unsuccessfully demanded that the TCEQ take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, was one of many filed across the United States in an attempt to gain legal acknowledgement and rulings that the atmosphere and clean air are public trust assets that must be protected.

Travis County District Judge Gisela Triana was the first judge to do so, and in the hope of heading off a precedent, the TCEQ is seeking to have her ‘public trust’ comments vacated.clean-air

It’s an interesting argument on the part of the Commission, since the Mission Statement on the TCEQ site states:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality strives to protect our state’s public health and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development. Our goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.

Definitions have a curious way of becoming slippery when you try to catch them, to hold them up to the light and examine them from all sides.

“Natural resource” would seem an obvious enough term to define – a resource that occurs in nature, and one might add the notion that natural resources are shared by all, as no one ‘made’ them.

But this lumps the natural resources we all need to exist – breathable air, drinkable water – with the resources which are nice to have for a variety of reasons, many of them economic. Oil, timber, land, fish, wildlife, minerals.

So the apparent inextricability in the TCEQ’s mission statement of natural resource protection in one sentence and setting clean air as a goal in another might not be all that difficult to separate, after all – but only if the ‘natural resources’ under protection are of a different kind than the ‘natural resource’ of clean air.

I note in passing that, according to this The Daily Texan article, “If Texas was its own country, its emission levels would rank 21st in the world.”

Texas sky Photo: Mike Robinson

Texas textured sky
Photo: Mike Robinson