On the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, we speak to an expert who has spent most of his life fixing the ozone hole as part of the Bank’s Montreal Protocol team.
In the late 1980s, Senior Environmental Specialist, Viraj Vithoontien, was working as a university lecturer in his native Thailand. As a mechanical engineer specializing in refrigeration and air-conditioning systems, he followed with interest the growing dialogue about the connection between chemicals used in refrigeration and the thinning of the ozone layer. He did not know then that the discovery of an ozone “hole” above the Antarctic and a meeting half-way across the world in Montreal would alter the course of his career.
Exactly 25 years ago, the Montreal Protocol was adopted and has since guided the phase-out of the production and consumption of groups of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) that damage the protective ozone layer which shields the earth from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.
In an impressive show of multilateralism, the world ushered in ozone recovery by phasing-out 98 percent of the ODS used in agricultural, consumer and industrial sectors around the world. Of the more than 260 staff and experts who have contributed to the Bank’s work in support of the Protocol over the years, Viraj stands out. He has dedicated 20-plus years of his career to the ozone issue, guiding clients in the transition away from ozone-depleting substances.
Clients, and many Bank colleagues, have come to consider him a guru of sorts. Given his character, he would likely eschew this notion, but we turned to Viraj to find out what makes him tick.
When he was still working as a university lecturer, the government of Thailand, with the assistance of the Bank was in the process of developing its Country Program for implementation of the Montreal Protocol. This was crucial for putting the country on the track towards addressing the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But the team had encountered a number of difficult technical obstacles. They were stuck. Given the importance of refrigeration and air-conditioning sectors in the country it was clear that a solution had to be found quickly. Viraj was brought in as an expert consultant.
Reflecting back, Viraj acknowledges that the work was intellectually demanding. The program was being developed from scratch; there were no templates or models. Ultimately, his contributions helped build the Country Program’s design. The experience confirmed his interest in the ozone challenge and demonstrated his unique abilities to the Bank. Before long, Viraj was working full-time for the Bank, helping to supervise implementation of the Thai Ozone Program.
From 1993-96, he took a sabbatical to become the first UNEP Regional Ozone Coordinator for South East Asia, where the focus was on policy development and institutional strengthening. In 1996, Viraj rejoined the Bank and since then he has been helping shape the Bank’s Montreal Protocol Operations to support clients achieve sustainable phase-out.
When asked about what strikes him most about the work he’s done, he responds, “The fact that I’ve been at it 5,834 days, and counting!” More seriously, he says it’s the opportunity to help shape the operations of the Montreal Protocol. “I have been able to use the vast knowledge and convening power of the Bank to help move away from an unsustainable project-by-project approach, and introduce innovative, country-driven, performance-based, national program approaches.”
Viraj was also involved in a number of other “firsts” achieved by the Bank including, assisting clients in tackling the challenge of curtailing, and ultimately stemming the production of new CFCs, and pioneering actions that supported both ODS elimination and climate mitigation using innovative financial schemes.
In 2010, he moved to the East Asia and Pacific Region, where the bulk of the Bank’s current ozone programming is centered. Vietnam for one, a long-time client, couldn’t be happier: the country’s national ozone program has benefited from Viraj’s guidance since 1994. He has overseen the work to ensure Vietnam’s compliance with phase-out objectives, and is now leading the team that will assist the government through the next stage of the ozone challenge, the phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons.
Over the years, science has shown that some substitutes for ODSs were warming the earth. The Protocol’s agenda evolved to become broader, incorporating energy efficiency and climate mitigation co-benefits. Viraj’s work now sensitizes teams to the possible climate impact of alternative technologies.
Does he feel his years of work and effort can leverage continued professional growth? He concedes that he sometimes that he inhabits such a specialized technical niche that people don’t know what to make of him. Karin Shepardson, the executive coordinator of the Bank’s Montreal Protocol Program says: “Viraj works tirelessly to help both the Bank and our clients stay on top of technological developments and brings all his years of experience to bear. His expertise shines when he is in the midst of tough negotiations, advocating on behalf of developing country clients.”
So, as we celebrate International Ozone Day if you have an ozone question, you now know where to turn. Ask Viraj!
Source: World Bank Group
Contributed by Dominique Kayser and Sonu Jain, Environment Department, SDN