This past autumn, A.R. Ravishankara, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, received an international Scientific Leadership award from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the agency that coordinates the U.N.’s environmental activities.
The award recognized Ravishankara’s lifelong work studying and finding solutions to climate change and ozone layer depletion. The honor was presented at a ceremony in Montreal on the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty that phased out ozone-harming chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs.
Ravishankara sees the award mostly as recognition for the efforts of his colleagues and himself on hydroflourocarbons, or HFCs – potent greenhouse gasses commonly used in air conditioning, refrigeration and insulation. These efforts led to the passage of the Montreal Protocol’s 2016 Kigali Amendment, which was designed to reduce the use of HFCs.
“It’s a very satisfying feeling to see that science was used and science mattered,” Ravishankara said. “Science helped make policy, and the world recognized the role of science and scientists.”
Background in ozone
Ravishankara was originally inspired to work in atmospheric science in graduate school, when he attended a lecture by Nobel laureate F. Sherwood Rowland – the researcher who discovered the harmful effects of CFCs on the ozone layer.
“It occurred to me that I could actually do the kind of research that would have a direct impact on societal issues,” Ravishankara said.
After getting his Ph.D. in 1975, he dived into atmospheric research. When the Montreal Protocol passed in 1987, he worked with industry and policy makers to find alternative chemicals to CFCs. And his research on fully fluorinated greenhouse gasses influenced the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Additionally, he worked for almost 30 years as a senior scientist for – and later the director of – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Chemical Sciences Division in Boulder.
Crafting good policy
Ravishankara came to CSU in 2014, where much of his research and policy work is now focused on finding ways to reduce atmospheric pollution from wildfires and in developing countries, such as India. Ravishankara said that Indian cities are among the most polluted in the world, to the point where airports are sometimes shut down because pilots can’t see through the smog. He said that the simple solution – stopping all industrial activities – would likely be impossible.
“You have to manage,” he said. “And the thing about managing – as opposed to cessation of an activity – is that it requires a lot more knowledge than to stop doing something, which we know we can’t do.”
Without studying a problem first, a policy solution could end up making the problem worse, Ravishankara said. More effective solutions to a problem like climate change involve finding workable alternatives to HFCs, aerosols (particulate matter) and agricultural fertilizers that emit nitrous oxide, he said.
Ravishankara compared problems faced by developing countries to those faced by the U.S. 70 years ago.
“This is not something new; the pace of change is what’s new,” he said. “Developing countries are changing at a rate that has not been seen in human history. Those changes are very rapid, and they don’t have good ways to cope with it.”
Still, he is optimistic that people will find ways to solve these problems, even in the face of climate change. He said that after traveling to every continent and to more than 50 countries, he has found that people around the world all have similar concerns about the future.
“I think humans in general are much more alike than we think,” he said. “There are some differences, but as long as we are a little open minded, we can realize that there are multiple ways to deal with problems.”
Ravishankara is a CSU University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Science Advisory Panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a U.N. organization aimed at reducing atmospheric pollution. He is also the chair of the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, a climate policy and research organization funded by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Additionally, Ravishankara is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has served on a variety of national and international committees, and is an author or coauthor of nearly 350 peer-reviewed publications.
The November UNEP awards recognized all participants in the creation of the Montreal Protocol and “their extraordinary commitment and unwavering dedication…toward making the Montreal Protocol a highly successful global environmental agreement that is protecting all life on Earth,” Tina Birmpili, head of the U.N. Ozone Secretariat said in a prepared statement.