When confronted with the claim that climate change is simply too big for us to do anything about, a lot of people like to bring up the ozone layer. For those who are unfamiliar, in the late 1970s humanity realized that our release of certain chemicals, mainly chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, was eating away at our planet’s ozone layer like acid. Most alarming was a “hole” – a giant patch of especially thin ozone, over Antarctica. This scared a lot of people, because that ozone works to shield us from the frankly horrifying amount of radiation coming from the sun. Less protection would mean more skin cancer, among other problems, and so the world got together and mostly phased out the use and production of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals.
And it actually worked. There are still a lot of chemicals we produce that mess with ozone, but the international effort to change course worked.
Scientists said the recovery is gradual and will take many years. If current policies remain in place, the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 levels — before the appearance of the ozone hole — by 2040, the report said, and will return to normal in the Arctic by 2045. Additionally, Antarctica could experience normal levels by 2066.
Scientists and environmental groups have long lauded the global ban of ozone-depleting chemicals as one of the most critical environmental achievements to date, and it could set a precedent for broader regulation of climate-warming emissions.
“Ozone action sets a precedent for climate action,” World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “Our success in phasing out ozone-eating chemicals shows us what can and must be done — as a matter of urgency — to transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gases and so limit temperature increase.”
And as with climate action, this is only really a “success” if we stay the course and keep not using those chemicals. As the article I quoted notes, just a few years ago, there was an upsurge in CFC emissions from eastern China a few years ago that had a number of people understandably worried. Emissions are back down now, but it’s a good reminder that we are still actively interacting with our atmosphere, and doing well for a few years doesn’t mean that we get to be irresponsible again.
Speaking of which…
While Elon Musk still has his fanboys, I think a lot of people reconsidered their belief in his genius when he kept insisting that Mars, a frozen, radioactive desert, was a totally viable place for humanity to live. Musk is, however, clearly playing five-dimensional chess. On the one hand, he’s going out of his way to obstruct mass transit projects that would reduce the need for personal cars, and on the other, he’s working hard to ensure that while it might not be frozen, Earth is also a radioactive desert:
Rocket launches emit both gases and particulates that damage the ozone layer. Reactive chlorine, black carbon, and nitrogen oxides (among other species) are all emitted by contemporary rockets. New fuels like methane are yet to be measured.
“The current impact of rocket launches on the ozone layer is estimated to be small but has the potential to grow as companies and nations scale up their space programmes,” Associate Professor in Environmental Physics Dr Laura Revell says.
“Ozone recovery has been a global success story. We want to ensure that future rocket launches continue that sustainable recovery.”
Global annual launches grew from 90 to 190 in the past 5 years, largely in the Northern Hemisphere. The space industry is projected to grow more rapidly: financial estimates indicate the global space industry could grow to US$3.7 trillion by 2040.
“Rockets are a perfect example of a ‘charismatic technology’ – where the promise of what the technology can enable drives deep emotional investment – extending far beyond what the technology also affects,” Rutherford Discovery Fellow and planetary scientist UC senior lecturer Dr Michele Bannister says.
Rocket fuel emissions are currently unregulated, both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally.
UC Master’s student Tyler Brown, who was involved in the research, says Aotearoa New Zealand is uniquely positioned to both lead and participate in this field. “New Zealand’s role as a major player in the global launch industry means we can help steer the conversation. We stand to benefit enormously from additional growth in our domestic space industry, and with that comes the opportunity to ensure that global activities are sustainable for the planet as a whole.”
The review lays out detailed plans of action for companies and for the ozone research community, with a call for coordinated global action to protect the upper atmosphere environment. Actions that companies can take include measuring the emissions of launch vehicles on the test stand and in-situ during flight, making that data available to researchers, and putting effects on ozone into industry best-practise rocket design and development.
“The international ozone research community has a strong history of measuring atmospheric ozone and developing models to understand how human activities could impact this critical layer of our atmosphere. By working with launch providers, we are well-placed to figure out what impacts we might see”, says Dr Revell.
“Rockets have exciting potential to enable industrial-level access to near-Earth space, and exploration throughout the Solar System. Creating sustainable global rocket launches is going to take coordination across aerospace companies, scientists, and governments: it is achievable, but we need to start now,” says Dr Bannister. “This is our chance to get ahead of the game.”
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of being proactive, when it comes to the environment. “Getting ahead of the game” is the big dream, but for the most part, it has just been that – a dream. Whether it’s handling of dangerous chemicals, public testing of automated driving systems, or lying about addictiveness and pushing opioids on people, the default is for the rich to get their way. They get to do whatever they want until the peasants get together a big enough mob to stop them. Over, and over, and over again.
I’m in favor of space exploration, and in developing our ability to get off this planet. I love the idea of humanity as an interstellar species, and one of my biggest gripes with mortality is that I won’t be able to see that happen. On the plus side, there’s no guarantee that it’ll happen how I want it to, and I also won’t be alive to see the horror show that is space exploration and exploitation driven by the greed of capitalists.
My big dream for my lifetime is to see humanity move towards a society that values life and the common good over the greed of the worst among us. Decade by decade, we have developed our ability to see problems coming well before they arrive. In the past, I’ve likened science to a flickering light over a rough sea. It gives us a series of imperfect snapshots of an ever-shifting future, and as we’ve gotten better at it, the flashes of light have gotten closer together, and lasted longer. A side effect of our success with the ozone layer was that it proved not just that we could see a problem coming – we’ve been able to do that for centuries – but that we could change course in response, and avoid that problem almost entirely.
The climate movement is plagued by fatalism, and it’s easy to understand why. It took decades of fighting to address the problem of lead pollution, and decades to get the truth about tobacco and cancer, and decades to get any protections of air and water. The fight for climate action is older than I am, and it seems like emissions only keep increasing, and the main thing governments are doing to prepare for the rising temperature, is increasing police and military spending. Worse, we live with the knowledge that at any moment, some multi-billionaire could use their obscene power to do something with global implications, like risking our ability to see into space, or mucking about with geo-engineering.
Or ignoring the warnings and undoing everything we’ve achieved in protecting the ozone layer.
But that achievement itself is worth remembering. The other source of doom-flavored fatalism that same group of powerful people who want to continue preventing real change. They spend so much money trying to stop us, because they know that we can change things, and that we can build a world in which nobody has the power to just fuck up the whole planet because of their greed and insecurity.
We can do this. We’ve done it before.
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