How Margaret Thatcher helped protect the world from climate change

By India Bourke

Earlier this month, the UN agreed a new deal on phasing down HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons. These potent greenhouse gases lurk in refrigerators, inhalers and air conditioning units, and happen to be warming the planet at a catastrophic rate.

Phasing them out means the world will receive a vital boost towards its targets on slowing global temperature rise – and it will have two rather surprising heroes from history to thank.

Back in the 1970s, CFCs (HFCs’ cousins) were burning a hole in the ozone layer and risked sending skin cancer rates through the roof. But very few in power were heeding the warnings.

That changed when a group of scientists managed to persuade the ex-chemistry student, and then prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, of the situation’s severity. The speech she made to bring the world together on this issue is still worthy of the most globally-minded eco-warrior today. “We carry common burdens, face common problems and must response with common action,” she told the UN General Assembly in 1989, when the agreement was on the brink of disaster.

The resulting Montreal Protocol not only banned CFCs but also ensured that rich nations would help developing countries to pay for the greener alternatives.

The political and financial collaboration achieved in this landmark act is urgently needed in today’s fight against climate change – something David Attenborough stresses in a new five-minute, stresses in a new five-minute, online film by Windfall Films and Gripping Films. The Hole: How Ronnie and Maggie Saved the World is a journey through archive footage of the moments that quite literally saved our lives.

Delegates at the UN’s recent meeting at Kigali in Rwanda revisited both the Protocol’s spirit and letter, as they attempt to include HFCs within its remit. HFCs don’t impact the ozone layer directly, hence why they were widely deployed as an alternative to CFCs; but their elimination could potentially reduce global temperatures by around 0.5°C by 2100.

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The task won’t be easy; divisions remain over how fast some countries, India in particular, will be able to phase-out their wider use. But India has already made an important pledge to phase out HFC23.

Some argue that the architects of the original Protocol could have saved today’s governments a lot of trouble if only they’d included HFCs at the start. Yet, in Attenborough’s words: “If today’s leaders learn from Ronnie and Maggie, there’s still time for a happy ending.”

You can watch the full film below, or find out more here:

India Bourke is editorial assistant at the New Statesman, where this piece was originally published. 

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