Turning science into effective policy

 Tini Birmpili, Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Progamme Ozone Secretariat, gives Professor Nigel Paul his award. © Copyright © 2019, IISD | Reporting Services
Tini Birmpili, Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Progamme Ozone Secretariat, gives Professor Nigel Paul his award.

Professor Nigel Paul gets a UN award in recognition of his “extraordinary contribution to the Montreal Protocol”, that is healing the hole in the Ozone layer and reducing global warming.

For the last nine years Nigel, professor of plant sciences at Lancaster University, has been advising world governments on the impacts that ozone depleting substances have on human health and the environment. He received an award from the UN Environment Programme “In recognition and appreciation of his extraordinary contribution”, as he stepped down from his role as co-chair of the Environmental Effects Assessment Panel (EEAP) of the Montreal Protocol.

The Montreal Protocol was signed by all the world’s governments in the late 1980s in response to international concern about a growing hole in the ozone layer, which absorbs most of the sun’s damaging UV radiation. It committed the signatories, known as Parties to the Protocol, to banning the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals which were causing the damage.

“Back then ozone depleting substances were everywhere: not just in refrigerators and aerosols but in every insulation foam and every asthma inhaler, they were used as fumigants in agriculture and in vital parts of many fire control systems as well as in many other products,” said Nigel, who was appointed to the Panel because of his wide-ranging research into the environmental impacts of UV radiation

 “The Environmental Effects Assessment Panel is the human face of the Montreal Protocol, looking at the impact that ozone depleting substances have on people’s health and wellbeing, on clean air, water, crops and ecosystems.

The Protocol’s three panels each write a formal report every four years: these enable the Parties to the Protocol to judge the success of their actions and what further action needs taking based on the latest science. Nigel and the other co-chairs also give verbal updates at the annual Meeting of the Parties, answering questions from the floor.  

“For the last report we reviewed nearly 2,000 scientific papers from a range of disciplines, distilling these into a 20-page summary. We’re the point of contact between the policy world and the research world; in a sense we are translators, translating science to make it accessible to policy makers.”

The Montreal Protocol was called “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date” by the then UN General Secretary Kofi Annan in 2000. In 2014, Nigel was in the room when an important amendment to the protocol was agreed at the Meeting of the Parties in Kigali. It committed governments to phasing out some of the chemicals that had replaced CFCs which, although they did not deplete ozone, were potent greenhouse gases.

“The Montreal Protocol has made a huge difference not just to the ozone layer but to our efforts to limit climate change. Some of these chemicals were 10,000x more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. If we had not controlled them, we would have increased global warming by 0.4 of a degree by the end of this century.”

But these achievements have not been easy.

“The Kigali amendment took six years to agree, with two meetings a year often going on into the early hours of the morning, nudging slowly towards an agreement, with a very long cycle of almost getting there and then not. In Kigali it was debated all night before being finally agreed at 7 in the morning.

“You look from the outside and think ‘why does it take so long’, but it is difficult to get consensus from 198 countries. I have immense respect for people on the policy side who deliver it - the politicians, their aides, people from environmental agencies and other bureaucrats. Kigali took a huge amount of diplomacy in the background, immense patience and stamina in the face of what at times seemed insurmountable opposition.”

Being involved in the Montreal Protocol changed the focus of Nigel’s work back in Lancaster, where he got deeply involved in bringing scientists and research users together to deliver innovative solutions to environmental problems.

“Working with the Protocol made me very aware of the reality of the impact agenda, of how environmental research gets translated into policy and then into action. You can have the best science and the best policy but if you don’t have tools to deliver them, it is hollow.

“In 1987 the Parties very quickly agreed to phase out CFCs but what made it possible were the technical and commercial innovations that allowed you to have fridges, asthma inhalers and aerosols without CFCs. It made me realise that unless business and innovation is part of the equation it won’t happen.”

In 2012, Nigel was the founding academic lead of the Centre for Global Eco-innovation, based at the Lancaster Environment Centre, becoming Director in 2015. It offers research expertise to small and medium sized enterprises who have ambitions to develop an environmental service, product or process, but who don’t have the in-house research capacity to bring the idea to fruition.

In 2017, Nigel won funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund for the £7 million Recirculate project, working with African researchers, businesses and communities to develop an African approach to eco-innovation which can help to address some of the continent’s pressing problems with water

For Nigel, his work with the Montreal Protocol has been the most rewarding experience of his career.

“I feel privileged to have been a small cog in the achievements of the Montreal Protocol, which by the end of the century will have prevented hundreds of millions of skin cancers as well as helped to reduce global warming.”

He is still using his expertise to support these activities, working with OzonAction, helping to communicate some of the Protocol’s activities in a way that is accessible to a wide audience. He was recently interviewed for a new UNEP video explaining the work of the three assessment panels, which also features scientists at work in the Lancaster Environment Centre.

Nigel believes that, despite the success of the Protocol, the work of the assessment panels is as vital as ever.

“We can’t be complacent. Everyone thought the Protocol was working but last year it was discovered that illegal production of CFCs was going on in East Asia. This was detected by great science picking up the compounds as they appeared in the atmosphere.

“It seems that illegal factories have been identified and shut down,  showing that continued vigilance and cooperation between scientists and policy maker can really make a difference to human health and the environment.” 

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