Our Perspective

30 Years On… Are We Safer Today?


30 years ago, in 1985, we were shocked by the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, mainly because the decline in the ozone layer was far larger than what anyone had expected. Much has happened since then.  Today, we mark the 30th anniversary since the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was agreed upon. 

30 years on, the question remains, are we safer today? Despite many global commitments and efforts. 197 countries ratified the Vienna Convention, making it one of the most successful environmental treatises. It provided a framework for nations to protect the ozone layer, gave legally binding targets in the accompanying Montreal Protocol in 1987.

BOX: The ozone layer, which contains high concentrations of ozone (O3), is a part of the atmosphere that deflects most of the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Ozone can be destroyed by a number of free radical catalysts, the most important of which is chlorine atom (Cl·) and bromine atom (Br·). Human activity has dramatically increased the levels of chlorine and bromine released. A single chlorine atom can keep on destroying ozone for up to two years, however bromine is even more efficient than chlorine at destroying ozone. The main source of man-made ozone depleting substances are halocarbon such as Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) are found in refrigerants, air conditioners, solvents, propellants, and foam-blowing agents. Many of these are also greenhouse gases, some thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Ozone layer prevents harmful
ultraviolet (UV) B wavelengths (280–315 nm) from passing through.  Rapid decreases in the ozone layer being projected after the detection of the ozone hole, generated worldwide alarm.  Why be alarmed? Because the effect was on human health. A variety of biological impacts such as increases in sunburn, skin cancer, cataracts, damage to crops, and reduction of plankton in the ocean results from the increased UV exposure. There are global economic impacts too.  More harmful UV passing through means, affect economically important crops, such as rice, and thus on food security. Vienna Convention and the subsequent Montreal Protocol were agreed upon to take urgent steps to address these challenges.

Globally, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN’s development arm, established a dedicated global Montreal Protocol Unit (MPU) in 1991, and continues to spearhead and coordinate support to developing countries to meet their obligations under the Protocol and at the same time assisting countries to move towards a green development path. In the Asia Pacific region, UNDP works closely with 14 countries including China and India.

Sri Lanka, a small island nation, highlighted its commitment and leadership by signing the Montreal Protocol 26 years ago.   UNDP, been working in Sri Lanka for nearly 5 decades, has been working closely with the Ministry of Environment, the key focal agency to implement the Montreal Protocol, for over 21 years. We continue to work closely with the National Ozone Unit (NOU) within the Ministry providing capacity building, technology transfer, technical assistance, formulation and implementation of country and sector strategies and facilitate public and private partnerships.

Sri Lanka’s achievements standout regionally and globally. Sri Lanka gradually stopped the usage of Chroloflurocarbons (CFC) ahead of the target time period, and is now phasing out a range of Hydrochlorflurocarbons (HCFC). In 2007, Sri Lanka was awarded the prestigious “Implementer’s Award” at the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol.  The NOU has received global and national recognition for its efforts and its projects have also successfully built public-private partnerships at the highest level.

Currently Sri Lanka encourages the use of alternative refrigerants which have a low global warming potential (GWP) value for refrigeration & air conditioning, which is the largest sector using HCFCs. In addition the NOU has set up 8 mini-reclaim centers around the country with one located in Moratuwa. These centers will be able to recycle the CFCs and HCFCs which were originally used in old equipment by a process of recovering, recycling and reclaiming these gases. Such actions will prevent the release of these harmful gases into the atmosphere from these old equipment, and avoid significant environmental damage, that would reverse much of the good work done so far.

The Montreal Protocol has since been strengthened greatly through subsequent amendments and adjustments, supported by ongoing research, which has enhanced our understanding of the ozone loss. As of end-2014, the Montreal Protocol has helped successfully eliminate over 98% of controlled ozone depleting substances, helping reverse the damage to the ozone layer.

Despite these successes, challenges still remain. CFCs were replaced by the less damaging hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which is now being systematically replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Though HFCs do not contribute to ozone depletion, they are potent greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and climate change.

Over the last 10 years Sri Lanka has been increasingly affected by a number of floods, droughts, landslides, and occasional cyclones and these are projected to worsen with climate change. Impacts of climate change are also manifested through a slow but steadily rising temperature and more erratic and unpredictable seasonal rainfall. The number of warm days and warm nights has increased in all districts. Though overall amount of rainfall has not changes dramatically, the frequency, duration and quantity of rainfall has altered dramatically affecting seasonal cropping patterns, irrigation potential and hydropower generation. These disasters also affect the sustainable development of the country, causing much damages to infrastructure and state resources, regressing hard earned progress in the country.

While the Vienna Convention has been quite effective with regards to controlling the ozone damage, unfortunately the need for action has exponentially grown. The renewed call on humanity to take action, not tomorrow but today, is for similar strong agreements.

COP21, or the upcoming 21st session of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris in November this year, is an opportunity for the global community, to stand tall, be bold, agree and take action.

Hopefully, then the world development, will be truly sustainable.

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