Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech concluding Saving the Ozone Layer Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments: Between 0940 and 1240.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1878

Prime Minister:

Mr Chairman, Dr Tolba, Honoured Delegates.

May I first thank you Dr Tolba for that marvellous speech which we all listened to with great attention. I hope you have enjoyed this Conference and found its deliberations valuable. I would like to thank you for your many stimulating contributions to its work.

There are many different aspects of the global environment which demand action: the tropical rainforests, the food chain in the sea and the problems of pollution. But in this Conference we have concentrated on the single theme of the threat to the ozone layer and we have had three aims. [end p1]

First, to increase public awareness in all our countries of the threat and of the consequences for every country in the world from failure to act. It is not a case of some countries asking other countries to act. It is a case of every country taking action if we are to protect all peoples.

Our second aim — to commit ourselves to practical steps which will halt the damage being done to the ozone layer but in a way which will not set back people's hopes for a better life through steady economic growth.

And third, to strengthen the existing international organisations which are already doing such excellent work in this field, above all the United Nations Environment Programme.

I think we can be well satisfied with the work we have done here. But we must keep a sense of perspective. Even if all the chemicals which damage the ozone layer were banned tomorrow, ozone depletion would continue for more than a decade and it would take our planet something like one hundred years to replenish the ozone already lost. Such is the extent of the damage we have already done.

Our success in solving the problem will be measured not over months or years but over decades, indeed centuries. But two things from this Conference have struck me most forcefully. First, the urgency of the problem and second, no-one can opt out. [end p2]

Mr Chairman, for centuries mankind has worked on the assumption that we could pursue the goal of steady progress without disturbing the fundamental equilibrium of the world's atmosphere and its living systems.

In a very short space of time that comfortable assumption has been shattered. We rightly set out to improve the standard of life of the world's peoples but we have now realised that we could be undermining the very systems needed to maintain life on our planet.

Major changes in the chemistry of the earth's atmosphere are taking place with potentially calamitous effects for all mankind. The destruction of stratospheric ozone is such a problem. The ozone layer which protects life is also at its mercy.

There are still many uncertainties about it. For example, we have a lot more to learn about the mechanisms of ozone creation and destruction and about the effects of increased ultraviolet radiation on living organisms.

Indeed I thought a recent article in the Economist magazine put it very well in summarising the incomplete state of scientific knowledge about the ozone layer. “How full” they asked “is a bucket of indeterminate size, with unknown capacity and a questionable number of leaks that is being refilled at an unknown rate and which you cannot easily see?” [end p3]

But our knowledge is increasing. Scarcely a week goes by without reading or hearing of some new discovery. We learn more about the linkages between different aspects of atmospheric chemistry, between the chlorofluorocarbons and the greenhouse effect. And apparently there are severe risks to the ozone layer over the Arctic as well.

Mr Chairman, science has to be the foundation of our common efforts to understand the problems and to deal with them. It was theoretical science by the Americans in the 1970s which identified ozone deplection as a potential problem. It was practical observation by the British Antarctic Survey in the 1980s which established the reality.

The further work going on should tell us what is happening to the atmoshpere's chemistry, should tell us what needs to be done to restore and maintain a balance, and should tell us how much or how little time we have to take the necessary action. For science holds the key to the solution of the problem, as well as to its definition.

The same painstaking scientific method which has solved so many problems in the past will solve these new problems of today without sacrificing the economic progress which is both the hope and ambition of so many. [end p4]

And unless we base our policies on sound science we shall try to solve the wrong problems or solve them in the wrong way and the solution itself could create new problems.

We already know that some of the processes which would reduce consumption of CFCs have the effect of causing or compounding other problems. For instance, CFC substitutes in some cases would be less energy-efficient, thereby increasing emissions of carbon dioxide — the main contributor to global warming.

Mr Chairman, there is an irony about the environmental problems which now confront us. Since the beginning of civilisation, the main damage to our way of life has come from human malevolence and destructiveness, from wars, from weapons, from hostility, from conflicts.

Now, the damage to the environment comes from the actions of millions of people conducting peaceful activities which contribute to their health, their well-being and their work in agriculture or industry, activities in other words which are perceived as beneficial.

But Mr Chairman, no matter at what degree of latitude we live, ozone depletion will severely affect us all, just as will global climate change. [end p5]

The conclusion is clear. It is no good some of us acting to solve the problems while others go on as before. The problems will only be solved by common action and every country must play its full part and every citizen can help.

Thus we have a powerful incentive to strengthen the United Nations and other international bodies. When we consider the aid we give through international agencies, including the World Bank, we must see that it is given in a way which does not harm but which preserves nature's life support systems.

And speaking for this country, we shall put greater emphasis on environmental needs in allocating our aid programme and I hope others will do likewise. Such a course would naturally require the cooperation of all concerned.

The institutions to enable us to work together are already there. We have the United Nations Environment Programme as the main institution. We have the Montreal Protocol as the framework. We have the World Meteorological Organisation. We have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which is bringing together in sharp focus the results of scientific work from all parts of the world.

Building new institutions would only distract us from the real tasks and those real tasks are, first, to see that more countries sign the Montreal Protocol. Already thirty-three have done so and twenty others have indicated during this Conference that they will and ten others that they probably will and our goal must be nothing less than to see that all countries sign. [end p6]

The second task is to strengthen our support for the United Nations Environment Programme. Britain, for its part, is doubling the financial contribution which it makes each year. And within the institutions we need to put in hand practical steps to deal with the problems we have identified, steps to slow down the damage to the ozone layer before it is too late and steps which will eventually allow it to recover.

We have at this Conference addressed ourselves to how we can eventually eliminate the use of CFCs. Many industrialised countries, including the United Kingdom and our European Community partners, have committed themselves to the goal of ending production and consumption of the CFCs identified in the Montreal Protocol by the end of this century. That sounds ver ambitious — it is. But let me remind you again that even with that action, damage already done to the ozone layer will be with us, our children and grandchildren, throughout the twenty-first century.

At this Conference we have seen that substitute technologies and chemicals are steadily becoming available. Let me mention some of the action that we are taking in this country. Refrigeration circuits are being re-designed to reduce the amount of CFCs used. European Community Member States are expected to reduce the CFCs used by the domestic appliance industry by forty-five percent by the end of this year. [end p7]

Looking further ahead, one of our biggest companies — ICI — is spending £100 million in developing and researching alternatives to CFCs. Aerosol manufacturers have agreed to phase out the nonessential use of CFCs by the end of this year. Plastic foam industries have developed a recovery plant which should recycle close to one hundred percent of the CFCs used, and this morning, some of you may have seen in our national newspapers that one great company that sells refrigerators is offering to take back all used refrigerators to tap-off the CFCs, recover them and then recycle the rest of the metal there. So already you have had a tremendously good effect and industry has responded very quickly and I am sure we shall get the response of public opinion. So the response of world industry exemplified at this Conference holds the promise of effective and economic measures which will be available to all countries. [end p8]

I recognise, as Dr. Tolba said, that some countries will want to be assured that the necessary measures to halt the damage to the ozone layer will not place severe limits on their economic growth. Clearly, it would be intolerable for the countries which have already industrialised and have caused the greater part of the problems we face to expect others to pay the price in terms of their people's hopes and wellbeing. Our Conference has shown that such fears are not necessary.

First, the solutions indicated are compatible with continued and sustainable economic growth; and second, the new technologies and substances which are becoming available should help others to avoid the mistakes which we in the highly industrialised countries have made. They need not go through a CFC phase at all.

Some delegates have drawn attention to other alarming and pressing problems: poverty, hunger and disease. Of course, these issues are on the world's agenda — they must be — but further damage to the ozone layer would add to them all and make things worse.

Mr. Chairman, our most important task is to make people realise that simply to carry on as we are is not an option. The power of public opinion and of the consumer is already making itself felt in many of our countries. You see it in the sale of ozonefriendly products in our shops and supermarkets, an example of how the individual citizen can make a personal contribution, and it is [end p9] only with the active cooperation of millions upon millions of people — people who understand the problem, people who see the need to restore the balance of nature before it is too late, people who are ready to change their customs and habits in what they buy and what they do — it is only then that we shall overcome one of the greatest challenges which life on earth has yet faced.

We must hand on the title deeds of life to our grandchildren and beyond. That is our obligation. We here resolve to make it our duty.

I hope you have enjoyed this Conference. We have loved having you with us. We shall miss that marvellous film at the beginning of all our meetings and may I say how wonderful I think the people have been who have made those films and will try to make them available to all of you.

We shall meet again here in April next year for the second meeting of the contracting parties to the Montreal Protocol and that meeting will carry forward the momemtum generated here and next month in Helsinki.

Thank you for coming. We wish you well. Safe journey home! (applause)