My Ozone, My Life: Leading Change for Environmental Protection, by Ndubisi Paul

NEWS DIGEST – On 16th September 1987, countries across the globe assembled under the auspices of the United Nations to sign what would become the greatest international treaty. It was the Montreal Protocol,  a convention established to protect our ozone layer by reducing the consumption and production of ozone-depleting substances (ODS).  It was the first treaty to be signed by every nation, and even till this day, it is celebrated on the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. As we have coloured the skies with fireworks on this year’s Ozone Day, its theme ‘Ozone for Life’ reminds us yet again that the protection of our world is as important as—if not more important than—our quest for survival in it.

At roughly 32 kilometres above the Earth’s surface   lies the Ozone Layer, the unseen shield protecting us from death by sunlight. This stratospheric blanket is composed of ozone, a different form of oxygen that prevents harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from penetrating and damaging plant and animal life. But over decades of revolutions in science and technology, the strength of this shield has been sacrificed on the altar of human advancement. To use the jargon of ecologists, the ozone layer has “thinned” so much that there is now an ‘ozone hole’   in the Antarctic region of the Earth.

It would not be out of place to assert that the menace of ozone depletion is due more to human activity than to any natural cause. The mouth of scientific research has indeed confirmed that volcanic eruptions and high-altitude winds contribute to the layer’s deterioration, but only 1-2% of it.   And what about the remaining 98-99%? Tonnes of ODS-based gas are still being released into the atmosphere every year from our factories and appliances, despite global progress. Chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, hydrobromofluorocarbons and many other stubborn chemicals of carbon still float above our heads. And they will float for many years,   slowly eating away at the ozone layer.

But even more alarming than ozone depletion is the threat it poses to all facets of biodiversity. For plants, it means lower crop yield, stunted growth, and an increased possibility of plant disease—all of which spell hunger and poverty for humanity. For marine organisms that play indispensable roles in the food chain, it means certain death. For materials including wood, rubber, and fabric, it means deterioration and decay. For mankind, it means higher risks of cancer, cataracts, sunburns, and an overall weakening of our immune systems.

What must we do, then, to ensure that adversity is avoided and prosperity is preserved?

If we are to lead change for environmental protection, then we must first be the change. It is great folly to sit still until we are personally afflicted, for a person who waits for a storm to arrive before taking action would end up suffering the pangs of destruction. We must open our doors for unity and become ambassadors of ozone preservation in our vicinities and communities. Whether by planting trees in our neighbourhoods, or by avoiding ODS-based substances, or by admonishing our localities to desist from using these substances, we must be leaders and role models who inspire and motivate one another to sustain our planet.

Aristotle once said that the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living differ from the dead. Nowhere does this statement resonate as intensely as on the subject of ozone layer preservation, being a matter of life and death itself. We must ensure that the children and youth to whom we would entrust the future of humanity tomorrow are equipped with the knowledge of ozone protection today. The Federal Ministries of Environment and Education should collaborate with academia and other stakeholders to raise a cavalry of young, climate-smart citizens. Students in secondary and tertiary institutions should then build upon administrative support to establish clubs and societies that spread the gospel of ozone preservation by words and actions.

Closely accompanying the educational agenda should be radical public awareness programmes to ensure that every Nigerian is on board. For if a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then our concerted efforts to protect the environment are only as efficient as the least effort made. Again, the Ministry of Environment should increase partnerships with non-governmental initiatives like Climate Smart Nigeria in orienting all communities, both rural and urban, and influencing Nigerians to act towards the safety of the ozone layer.

Emerging technologies also play a vital role in the fight against ozone layer depletion. With advances in materials science, artificial intelligence, renewable energy technologies, and 3D printing among others, scientists and engineers in academia and industry could collaborate in accelerating non-ODS research and development. New and cleaner materials must become a national priority, as they would ensure that we can safely replace the ODS-based elements that are already so interwoven into the fabric of our society.

It is worth noting that the federal government has been diligent in safeguarding the ozone layer, especially through the National Environmental (Ozone Layer Protection) Regulations and the United Nations-assisted Hydrocarbon Phase-out Management Plan (HPMP), both governed by the National Ozone Office.   Against these backdrops, it should intensify efforts by partnering with corporate organizations to strengthen industrial capacity for manufacturing and using non-ODS materials. It should then bolster these efforts by implementing two key policies: one to curb national demand for ODS-based materials, and another to prevent our nation from becoming an ODS dumping ground for other nations.

The success of the Montreal Protocol sent a powerful message to all of humanity, a message that there are no barriers to what we can achieve if all hands are on deck. As we journey further into the 21st century, let this message reverberate in our hearts and minds. In the words of a pro-environmental citizen, we are part of nature and not apart from nature. To ignore nature is to ignore humanity; to safeguard nature is to safeguard humanity.   And indeed, to protect the ozone layer is to protect humanity.

Ndubisi Chibuzor Paul
Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Nigeria, Nsukka