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A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle near Porto Velho, Brazil, on September 9, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of fires have been recorded across the Amazon rainforest, with dramatic biodiversity loss and severe negative impacts on climate.

Generally, the Amazon sees fires all year round. However, last month which was typically the beginning of the fire season saw a rise in the number of fires breaking out across the rainforest. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, there have been 72,843 fires in the Amazon this year, an 83 per cent increase from 2018 and more are expected.

Numerous factors worsened this year’s Amazon fires, including climate change, deforestation and poor government policies. Thus, it is no surprise that some fires were started by settlers to clear some lands adjacent to the forest for farming and then they spread across the rainforests.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s greatest natural assets when it comes to tackling climate change. Sadly, the international community failed to act timely when fires broke out in the Amazon, as it is also the case with the climate change crisis. Instead, the world leaders accused each other over rainforest fire aids, policies, etc.

However, we witnessed a very successful climate story that began on September 16, 1987, when nations adopted the Montreal Protocol and agreed to phase out the production and use of ozone-depleting substances. Ozone in the stratosphere forms a layer that deflects some of the sun’s radiation and protects us from its ill-effects such as sunburn and skin cancer.

From Montreal, lessons for today

More than three decades after Montreal, the ozone layer is showing excellent signs of recovery. In 2018, a Nasa study found that the ozone hole was the smallest it had been since 1988, the year before the Montreal protocol went into effect. But a full recovery will take decades because chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), ozone-depleting substances, have lifetimes of 50 to 100 years.

So, the Montreal Protocol is one of the world’s most successful environmental treaties and one of the most important achievements of international climate cooperation. The relatively simple act of avoiding products containing CFCs led to the direct reduction of a major threat.

If we are going to make progress on the other challenges such as global climate change and Amazon fires, we need more of these narratives to help governments, private sector and individuals to bridge the gap between an easy action and a tangible effect.

The United Arab Emirates has been an important and active participant in the international community’s efforts to phase out ozone-depleting substances, as the country acceded to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1989. It also adopted the four amendments to the Montreal Protocol.

The UAE managed to tighten control over importing ozone-depleting substances and illegal trade in these types of substances. Besides, there were continuous awareness programmes, both for individuals and workers in the industrial sector, to promote the use of available alternatives. Due to its leading role, the UAE hosted the 27th Conference of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in 2015.

Seeking a sustainable future

The success of the Montreal Protocol holds some lessons for today’s efforts to confront human-induced climate change. We need committed, devoted and environmental conscious countries like the UAE. Strong leadership by the then US president Ronald Reagan and Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher was crucial during the negotiations of the treaty.

In addition, the step-by-step process to achieve tangible results began modestly and was designed to be flexible so that more ozone-depleting substances could be phased out by later amendments. Developing countries were also provided with incentives and institutional support to meet their compliance targets. But perhaps the most important lesson is the need for action, even when the science is not yet definitive. In fact, when Montreal Protocol was signed, we were less certain then of the risks of CFCs than we are now of the risks of greenhouse gas emissions.

Citizens from across the globe are hoping for another climate success story and demanding a sustainable future to protect our planet, but the question still remains: Can the international community unite together once more to halt Amazon rainforest fires and fight climate change?

Dr Mohammad Abdel Raouf is an independent environment researcher.