The Montreal Protocol may not have the household name status of its famous Kyoto cousin, but Kirsten Cappel MEM’04 does not mind. She is thrilled to work on what former U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan has called “the single most successful international agreement to date.” And just because the treaty is not well known doesn’t mean the issue it addresses is unfamiliar. Chances are, you’ve heard of it.

Cappel, an environmental protection specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), explains: “Regulations under Title 6 of the Clean Air Act give us the authority to regulate chemicals that are depleting the ozone layer”—substances responsible for what is colloquially referred to as the “ozone hole,” the environmental problem that generated a lot of ink in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fixing a Hole

The Montreal Protocol, adopted in September 1987, is the global framework for phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals. Today the United States along with more than 190 other U.N. member states are on board with the treaty, making it far more successful if not quite as famous as the Kyoto Protocol, the topic of Cappel’s undergraduate honors thesis and the impetus behind her yen to work for EPA. As she astutely if not quite presciently told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, while a student and basketball player 
at the University of California, Irvine, “I would like to work for the Environmental Protection Agency” (Chris Foster, “Cappel Gets Plenty of Rest, Except During Games,” LA Times, Nov. 17, 1998, D-8).

Cappel got to EPA by way of the Nicholas School, where she arrived in 2002 to study environmental policy. After graduating in 2004, she landed at EPA, where she is something of a rule enforcer.

“My job entails making sure the U.S. is in compliance with the Montreal Protocol,” says Cappel.

To get a better idea of what that means, here’s a quick primer on ozone.

Ozone (O3) is a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms. On ground level, ozone is a bad thing—it is one component of the volatile mix that creates smog, so the less of it the better.

But the depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere, where more than 90 percent of the Earth’s ozone exists, is a problem. Up in the stratosphere, some six to 31 miles above the planet’s surface, a layer of ozone protects the Earth’s surface from damaging ultraviolet light, helping to guard against things like sunburn, cataracts, and skin cancer. So the more ozone there the better.

In the 1980s scientists noted a depletion of atmospheric ozone. What they initially thought was an anomaly turned out to be part of a seasonal phenomenon. During the Southern Hemisphere’s spring, stratospheric ozone over the Antarctic almost entirely 
disappears as the return of sunlight sets off a photochemical reaction that consumes ozone in the presence of halogens such as chlorine, fluorine and bromine. These substances get into the stratosphere in large part through the breakdown of synthetic compounds used as refrigerants, solvents, propellants, and foaming agents, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and halons.

How the Montreal Protocol Works

“I work on phasing out these chemicals,” says Cappel, who has managed the essential use program and the import regulations. Today CFCs, the biggest culprit of the thinning ozone, are all but history.

“Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, halons, used in fire extinguishers, and CFCs, which were common in refrigerators and some air conditioners, were the biggest ozone-depleters,” says Cappel. “EPA phased those chemicals out first.”

The phase-out was achieved by limiting the number of allowable ozone-depleting substances, and then monitoring and enforcing how much was produced, imported and exported. “In addition, financial incentives and the ability to transfer technologies have helped developing countries reduce these substances and switch to safer alternatives.”

“We use a flexible approach to phase them out,” Cappel excitedly says. “The government sets limits for companies—how much they can produce and import. Then each company has a number of allowances that can be traded.”

By the mid-1990s, the United States had virtually eliminated the production and import of CFCs—there are still very limited exemptions, such as for asthma inhalers.

“HCFCs were often used as temporary substitutes for CFCs,” says Cappel, who works on rulemakings for these chemicals. “Now those substances are being phased out too.”

Companies turn to Cappel for guidance on what they can and cannot import. For example, R22, a popular refrigerant gas covered by the Montreal Protocol, was restricted in 2003. Today, companies wanting to import this ozone-depleting substance must do so in compliance with the U.S. licensing system and the import requirements.

International Policy Wonk

One highlight of Cappel’s position has been the opportunity to share with other countries how the United States has phased these chemicals out. In 2006 and 2007, she participated in international workshops in Mexico and St. Lucia, presenting lessons learned about how to design a regulatory structure and combat illegal trade. Cappel met and mixed with people who, like her, were committed to protecting the ozone layer.

“Now those countries that attended have their own rules in place for addressing these substances,” says Cappel. “But back then the United States could lead by example.”

Cappel’s first taste of international travel with an environmental agenda came at the Nicholas School. In 2003 Cappel interned at the Secretariat to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany. There she assisted the climate change secretariat and wrote background materials for a subsidiary body meeting. That winter she attended the ninth annual climate talks in Milan—known to insiders as COP-9, short for the ninth Conference of the Parties. After that, Cappel toured Europe before heading back to Durham for her final semester at the Nicholas School.

Travel and discipline were also hallmarks of her undergraduate study at Irvine, where she attended under a full basketball scholarship, playing for four years as a star Anteater.

“I was recruited to play at Irvine,” says Cappel. “We practiced for four hours a day and traveled all the time. I kept a tight academic schedule also. That structure was amazing for me.”

Somehow, despite the rigors of playing for an NCAA Division I team, she found enough time off the court to study, graduating cum laude with a major in social ecology. Both her studies, which included courses in environmental law and policy, and her honors thesis, “An Investigation of the Kyoto Protocol: Strategies for the Future,” laid a good foundation for her time at the Nicholas School. She touts the Nicholas School and its interdisciplinary opportunities for helping move her even closer to her goal of working on environmental policy at EPA.

“One of the benefits of the Nicholas School was the variety of courses and topics of study, as well as the ability to take classes throughout the campus—at the public policy school, the business school, as well as the Nicholas School,” says Cappel. “The technical knowledge in the economic classes and the hands-on courses on how to write a policy brief have been very helpful because that’s a lot of what I do now.”

Environment Was a Natural for the California Native

Although Cappel has a wonky side (she speaks animatedly about the ins and outs of writing a federal rule-making), her passion for the environment has some natural roots, too. She says that growing up on the California coast infused her with an environmental ethic from an early age.

“I grew up right by the water in Orange County,” says Cappel. “The Bolsa Chica wetlands is one of the last remaining wetlands in southern California. It’s a beautiful piece of land. I remember developers trying to develop it and environmentalists trying to keep them out.”

In recent years Cappel has shared her enthusiasm for the environment with several Washington, D.C. high schoolers, through the EnvironMentor program.

The program pairs a professional with a student with likeminded interests, and teams them up on a science project. Cappel met with and mentored her students weekly, teaching them how to do PowerPoint presentations and how to put a research project together.

“One year, my high school student and I did a very basic water-testing project,” Cappel recalls. “We compared water from her sink with water from the Potomac river to see how the tap water was treated at the plant.”

She enjoyed the program and would consider doing it again, but it is very time-intensive. And time has been one of those commodities that has come up short recently. Still, she is committed to public service and is looking for her next project. The weekend before Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, for example, Cappel volunteered at a D.C.-area food bank.

And then there’s basketball.

“I’m trying to figure out my next move,” says Cappel who hasn’t been on the court much lately except for the occasional pickup game. “I played my colleague the other day,” she says, adding matter-of-factly, “I beat him.”

She is considering basketball as a possible antidote for her long hours at EPA, perhaps dabbling in some dribbling by way of athletic mentoring to offset the stasis of her desk job. “It’d be fun to coach young girls,” she says. “It increases  self-confidence and equips you to deal with life and stress.”

Erica Rowell is managing editor of Dean Chameides’ blog, She is based in New York City.

For more on Kirsten watch this video also produced by Erika Rowell.