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The Unity that Transformed the Planet

Viraj Vithoontien, World Bank Lead Environmental Specialist

Around this time last year, there was a relatively small news article which is one the few great news but managed to elude the public attention, buried beneath mountains of pandemic-related news: the Antarctic ozone hole has become the smallest on record since its discovery more than four decades ago, while the single largest ozone hole over the North Pole has finally closed after hovering above the Artic for nearly a month.

According to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Antarctic ozone slowly decreased in the 1970s, with large seasonal ozone deficits appearing in the early 1980s. Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey discovered the ozone hole in 1985, and NASA’s satellite estimates of total column ozone from the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer confirmed the 1985 event, revealing the ozone hole’s continental scale.

While abnormal weather systems causing warm temperatures played a part in this, the long-term commitment at the global level played a crucial role in saving the ozone layer from ozone-depleting substances (ODS) especially CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), found in aerosol sprays and as coolants in air-conditioners and refrigerators.

In this case, Thailand truly deserves an outstanding recognition.

According to Dr Viraj Vithoonthien, former Lead Environmental Specialist at the World Bank, the Thai government’s decision to introduce more environmentally-friendly coolants in the production process was a significant move as it helped the country maintain its status as the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of air-conditioners and refrigerators.

The ozone layer is the portion of the stratosphere where the gaseous molecules are present, protecting life on Earth from harmful UV light. It is extremely sensitive to CFCs which cause ozone depletion in the layer. “You could say that the success in this project is the result of true global collaboration of all stakeholders particularly the industry sector,” says the Thai engineering expert, referring to more than 30 years of collaboration between countries around the world to phase out CFCs production.

Dr Viraj is among the first groups of experts on ozone layer depletion, beginning his work with the World Bank about 25 years ago. Apart from utilizing his technical skills, he also played a pivotal role in the negotiating process with the industry to switch to the new solvants and the production technology.

In 1987, the international community signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete Ozone Layer in an agreement to regulate the consumption and production of ozone-depleting substances while phasing out CFCs. The United Nations in 2018 confirmed that the ozone layers across the world are recovering and expected to completely heal within the next three decades.

Compared to climate change, the ozone depletion is much easier to resolve as the number of stakeholders is “much, much smaller”, Dr Viraj says, noting the developed countries’ acknowledgement that they were the culprits in creating the ozone hole resulted in the willingness to take the lead in fixing the problem.

In the case of climate change, both developed and developing countries are not far from each other in terms of responsibilities by the time it became a global agenda. Although industrialized countries like the US and Japan are the world’s main polluters, the notion of significant emission reduction is unacceptable as it means economic slowdown. For emerging economies like Brazil, India, or China, the reduction is also unfair since it would reverse their eocnomic growth.

“Not long ago, University of Yale released a study that suggests every country introduce a carbon tax policy to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2°C. The problem is this tax will make the poor even poorer,” he points out. “If you’re going to use carbon tax, a measure must be in place to ensure the tax money will go back to poor people in some ways.”

As someone with extensive experience working with the private sector, Dr Viraj says investors are usually reluctant to make any changes due to the added cost, but with consistent support and commitment from the government, they are happy to jump on the bandwagon. He cited Thailand’s continued top status in the air-condition industry as the perfect example.

“They don’t fear change as much as uncertainty from the government. If governments around the world show they are sincere and committed, even climate change isn’t too hard. To solve a global problem particularly climate change, we cannot go without the private sector.”