• Richard

Tragedy of the Commons Strikes Again: Ozone Hole Repair in Jeopardy 📽

It is with a great deal of surprise and dismay we learned this week that the hole in the ozone layer may no longer be on a path to repair. In fact, atmospheric concentrations of the man-made CFCs that caused the issue (trichlorofluoromethane [CFC-11]) are no longer tracking on a downward path, consistent with complete phase-out of CFCs by 2020 consistent with the Montreal Protocol. This leads scientists to conclude that covert production is occurring somewhere in East Asia (Montzka, et al., 2018; see also Stone, 2018).

Global, unified action to halt production of CFCs in response to the identified hole in the ozone layer was heralded as one of the great environmental success stories of the past decades. Scientists identified a severe problem that would impact all life on Earth and provided comprehensive evidence as to its root cause. Political leaders all over the world responded accordingly and instituted policies to phase out these pollutants. Given a chance to “heal” mother nature was bouncing back. Until a regrettable part of human nature made an impact, that is.

The tragedy of the commons is an economic theory of a situation within a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.

This appears to be what is playing itself out in a global context, as we urgently try to identify the source of new CFC-11 production and put a stop to it. We know that replacement refrigerants are more expensive to produce, so someone is taking advantage of lower production costs for their own immediate benefit, knowing that environmental costs will not be borne on an individual corporate or national level. The incentives are there for the immoral actor. All that is left now if for the international community to come together, identify the perpetrators and make a harsh example of those that flout the rules. On an individual basis, you could make an argument for Crimes Against Humanity, thus subject to prosecution in the International Criminal Court. Where a nation state is involved, in my opinion, sanctions ought to be wide-ranging and brutal. It should be noted, though, that there’s no precedence for enforcement of the Montreal Protocol, so it’s possible only symbolic action would be taken. A disheartening scenario to be sure.

This is a developing story that we should all follow with keen interest, and not just on its own merits. It may be instructive as to what a response to violations of the Paris Agreement on climate change would look like.


Resource: NASA on How Widely Used Coolants Contribute to Ozone Depletion



Montzka, S. et al (2018). “An unexpected and persistent increase in global emissions of ozone-depleting CFC-11”. Accessed: 20.05.18. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0106-2

NASA Goddard (2015). “NASA: Widely Used Coolants Contribute to Ozone Depletion”. Accessed: 20.05.18. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb42yJ4QBeU

Stone, M. (2018). “Why Is an Ozone-Destroying Chemical Coming Back, and How Do We Stop It?”. Accessed: 20.05.18. Source: https://earther.com/why-is-an-ozone-destroying-chemical-coming-back-and-ho-1826107532