Not many people in this city can claim to have helped save humanity from extinction. But Vancouver resident János Maté is an exception to the rule, which is why he’s being honoured on September 23 in Washington, D.C.
Maté, a Greenpeace International campaigner, will receive the 2010 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Montreal Protocol Award for his efforts to preserve the ozone layer and Earth’s atmosphere. Since 1992, he has represented Greenpeace at meetings held to implement an international protocol to reduce emissions of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons. These substances, which used to be common in refrigerators and air conditioners, thin the ozone layer, allowing greater amounts of harmful ultraviolet rays to reach Earth.
“We came very, very close to destroying all of life on this planet by the use of ozone-depleting substances,” Maté told the Georgia Straight by phone. “Without the ozone layer, there would be no life on Earth.”
The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed in 1987 and underwent several revisions in the 1990s. Former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan has described it as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”.
Maté, a former Hungarian refugee whose parents survived the Holocaust, pointed out that every country in the world has ratified the protocol. That has helped heal the ozone layer. However, he said that the chemical industry, after dragging its heels on ozone-layer depletion through the 1970s and 1980s, has come up with a dangerous substitute: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Although they aren’t harmful to the ozone layer, these chemicals contribute to global warming because of their heat-trapping abilities.
“Right now, our focus is on preventing developing countries from embracing en masse the hydrofluorocarbons, because they are thousands of times more potent as global-warming gases than”¦carbon dioxide,” Maté said. “For example, hydrofluorocarbon 134a is 1,430 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming.”
In the early 1990s, Maté and others working for Greenpeace began promoting a climate-friendly refrigeration alternative that made use of hydrocarbons. He said that there are approximately 400 million units using this “Greenfreeze” technology.
“Today, 40 percent of all global production is now using the Greenpeace technology,” he noted. By 2020, the UN expects this to reach 70 percent.
Maté said it took five years of campaigning in Japan before large companies converted to this approach. He added that he convinced the Cuban government to adopt the technology after visiting the country’s only refrigeration factory. In December, the Coca-Cola Company announced that all of its new vending machines and coolers would be HFC-free by 2015.
“Greenpeace has played a critical role in raising our awareness about the need for natural refrigeration,” Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said in a news release.
In 2000, Maté helped start a program that created a battery-free solar-powered refrigerator to keep vaccines safe in parts of the world where there is no electricity.
Despite his accomplishments, he never expected to be given a prize by the American government. “Very often, I’ve been quite critical of U.S. positions,” Maté said. “I was quite surprised when I got the message from the U.S. EPA that I had been selected as one of the recipients.”
Maté’s older brother, Gabor, a well-known Vancouver physician and author, described him as having a “huge heart”, noting that he has always been concerned about protecting the feminine energy in the universe.
“He has campaigned against captivity of whales,” Gabor told the Straight by phone. “He’s particularly upset about mother creatures being jailed and having their babies in captivity. The same with Mother Earth.”
As an example, Gabor cited his brother’s decision in 1995 to sail aboard a Greenpeace vessel to protest French underground nuclear testing in the South Pacific. In an article on Straight.com, Maté described his reaction at the time: “When the bomb went off, my incredulity turned to deep grief and I wept. Mother Earth had just been raped.”