The environmental disasters we almost solved

Dead trees caused by acid rain

Dead trees caused by acid rain

There are no simple solutions to complex problems such as climate change. But there have been times in the past when the world came together to try to solve an environmental crisis.

How did we deal with, for example, acid rain or the hole in the ozone layer? And are there lessons for tackling the larger problem of global warming?

1970s, ’80s and ’90s: Acid Rain

It’s the 80s and fish are disappearing in rivers in Scandinavia. Trees in parts of the forests have been stripped of leaves, and in North America some lakes are so devoid of life that their waters turn an eerily translucent blue.

The cause: Clouds of sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants travel long distances in the air and fall back to Earth in the form of acid rain.

coal-fired power station

Sulfuric and nitric acids from burning fossil fuels fell like acid rain

“In the 1980s, the message was that this was the biggest environmental problem of all time,” said Peringe Grennfelt, a Swedish scientist who played a key role in raising awareness of the dangers of acid rain.

Headlines warned of the threat of acid rain were the order of the day. For years there was embezzlement, denial and diplomatic deadlocks, but once the science was firmly established, the call for action quickly accelerated. It led to international agreements to curb the pollutants from burning fossil fuels that acidify rain.

Changes to the Clean Air Act in the US led to the development of a cap and trade system, giving companies an incentive to reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions and trade excess allowances. Each year the cap was lifted down until emissions dropped dramatically.

Graph showing how sulfur dioxide emissions have fallen sharply at the beginning of the new century.

Graph showing how sulfur dioxide emissions have fallen sharply at the beginning of the new century.

So it worked? Acid rain is now largely a thing of the past in Europe and North America, although it remains a problem elsewhere, particularly in Asia.

However, Canadian scientist John Smol, a young researcher in the 1980s, says acid rain was a “success story” in many ways, showing that countries can come together and solve an international problem. “If you don’t praise pollution, people will pollute. We certainly learned that,” he says.

1980s: The Ozone Hole

In 1985, news of another looming environmental problem made headlines. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) warned the world of a large and growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The damage was caused by the chlorofluorocarbons – greenhouse gases more commonly known as CFCs – then used in aerosol cans and refrigerants.

“All of a sudden it goes ‘boom,’ and it drops very quickly,” says BAS polar scientist Anna Jones, referring to the dramatic thinning of the band of gas that protects the planet from harmful UV rays.

Ozone over Antarctica had been declining since the 1970s, but news that the hole now covered the entire Antarctic continent caused worldwide alarm. In 1987, world leaders signed the landmark Montreal Protocol, hailed as one of the most successful environmental treaties of all time.

Ozone-depleting chemicals were phased out and the industry switched to “CFC-free” aerosols that appealed to green consumers. “It was a global problem, but industry, scientists and policy makers came together,” said Dr. Jones.

Graphical representation of the maximum size of the ozone hole over Antarctica, every year since 1980.

Graphical representation of the maximum size of the ozone hole over Antarctica, every year since 1980.

“They acted quickly; they acted with a mechanism that allowed for continued tightening of that protocol. It’s a very important template for how to make things work.”

Despite the success of the Montreal Protocol, there have been setbacks. It was discovered that hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), developed as an alternative to ozone-depleting chemicals, were potent greenhouse gases.

And there was a mysterious spike in CFCs traced to China. Both led to further action. And while the ozone hole is “on the road to recovery,” ozone-depleting chemicals linger in the atmosphere for decades, meaning repair is a long, slow process.

1920s to 2020: Leaded Gasoline

For decades we’ve used leaded gasoline as a fuel – because companies have added lead additives to help gasoline burn more efficiently. Leaded gasoline releases lead particles into vehicle exhaust that can be inhaled, causing a variety of health problems, including heart attacks, strokes and impaired mental development in children.

After a long battle between scientists, regulators and industry, a consensus emerged about the health risks, and rich countries banned leaded gasoline starting in the 1980s.

However, use in developing countries continued, because the fuel was cheaper to produce than unleaded petrol. After a long campaign by NGOs, industry groups and governments, under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in 2021 the last drop of leaded petrol was pumped into a car’s tank.

And while the world has officially eradicated leaded fuel, environmental lead pollution lingers in dust and soil.

Map showing the countries where lead petrol was still available in the early 2000s.

Map showing the countries where lead petrol was still available in the early 2000s.

Lessons for climate change?

With climate change dominating the news agenda, we hear very little about the ozone hole these days. Yet there are parallels between these crises and monumental climate change.

For a long time, acid rain has been a source of international conflict, with some denying its existence and pitting the fossil fuel industry against environmentalists. Does that sound familiar?

According to Prof. Smol, the debates and discussions about acid rain were training for the more complex problems of climate change. “The first lesson I learned was that we needed to communicate the results of our studies effectively, not only to other scientists, but also to policy makers and the general public,” he says.

“If there is an information vacuum, it is immediately filled by vested interest groups.”

Prof Smol says the situation is even more complicated today, with the growth of social media and the spread of misinformation.

Old gas pump

The era of leaded gasoline is over, eliminating a threat to human health and the environment

When it comes to international pressure to phase out leaded fuel, Rob de Jong, head of UNEP’s sustainable mobility unit, said an important lesson was the value of a harmonized approach. “The entire leaded gasoline campaign has invested heavily in public awareness, heavily invested in social and community action, heavily invested in focusing on the impact this has on children.”

And the steps taken by the international community to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals show — on a smaller scale — the kind of collaboration that will be needed to tackle the warming world.

“The problem of climate change is much more complicated to solve than the ozone problem because we don’t have direct alternatives to fossil fuels the way we had alternatives to CFCs,” says Dr Jones. “But that’s no reason not to do something — the problem is too important, it’s too big and they need to keep going.

“When industry and governments came together in the past, they solved a globally threatening environmental problem – now they have to show they can do it again.”

Follow Helen on Twitter.

Top image credit: Getty Images. Visualization of climate streaks courtesy of Prof Ed Hawkins and University of Reading.

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