The most successful risk management is, alas, invisible. Systematic preventive work and timely interventions ensure that the real impact of myriads of potential disasters is never felt, which means that few of us notice such efforts. As risk guru Nassim Nicholas Taleb often argues, “People will say like with Y2K: It was no big deal – why all the fuzz?”. Sadly, good risk managers are viewed as obstructionist nay-sayers and grossly underappreciated. Ask me; I used to be one.
Now and again, however, the secret story of a catastrophe averted, a freakish near-miss event, makes the headlines and, for the briefest of moments, those invisible heroes preventing it from happening, get to step out of the shadows.
This week, we witnessed just such a moment as an international team of scientists from the UK, USA, and New Zealand shared the results of their research, a glimpse of what they call the “World Avoided”. It is a dramatic vision of a scorched planet Earth that humanity managed to steer away from just in time by adopting the Montreal Protocol. The team, led by Dr Paul Young from Lancaster University, shows that if ozone-destroying chemicals, like the notorious CFCs, had been left unchecked, their continued and increased use would have contributed to global air temperatures rising by an additional 2,5°C by the end of this century.
Uplifting sustainability news like this is, sadly, few and far between these days. I feel, therefore, compelled to repeat the key finding of the scientists: “The control of the production of ozone-depleting substances through the Montreal Protocol means that the stratospheric ozone layer is recovering and that consequent increases in harmful surface ultraviolet radiation are being avoided.” Ozone-depleting substances are also potent greenhouse gases, so the ban prevented their contribution to global warming through the greenhouse effect. Critically, shielding plants from damaging increases in ultraviolet radiation has protected their ability to soak up and lock in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus preventing a further acceleration of climate change.
“With our research, we can see that the Montreal Protocol’s successes extend beyond protecting humanity from increased UV to protecting the ability of plants and trees to absorb CO2”, comments Dr Young. “Although we can hope that we never would have reached the catastrophic world as we simulated, it does remind us of the importance of continuing to protect the ozone layer.”
So, who should we praise for this impressive feat? The two scientists who in the early 1970s came up with the theory of how CFC compounds destroy the ozone layer, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, have already achieved recognition. They even won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995.
Sweden and Norway were among the first four countries to ban CFC-based aerosols already in 1978. I should add that was even before scientists discovered the ‘hole’ in the ozone shield over Antarctica in 1985. The politicians who enacted the ban, and the experts advising them to do so, certainly deserve credit.
I guess the names of the architects behind the Montreal Protocol itself are not easy to find unless you bury yourself in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) archives. Well, they know who they are. And I hope they celebrate properly their extraordinary achievements this week. Not ‘just’ protecting humanity from increased UV and ensuring that plants and trees keep absorbing CO2. They should also celebrate showing the world that it is possible to stop the downfall and reverse that negative spiral.
 The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is a global agreement to protect the Earth’s ozone layer by phasing out the chemicals that deplete it. The landmark agreement was signed in 1987 and entered into force in 1989.