Climate Activists Turn to Montreal Protocol to Fight Climate Change

This month, the New York Times reports that environmentalists are pursuing an innovative new tactic in the fight to halt global warming.   Parties to the Montreal Protocol – the 1987 agreement aimed at reversing the depletion of the ozone layer – convened in Bangkok, Thailand this month to, among other things, consider a U.S.-backed proposal to expand the treaty to encompass the reduction of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), one of the most potent Kyoto-recognized greenhouse gases that exists and one that is emitted throughout the globe.

The Montreal Protocol has been described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date.”   It provided for a gradual global phase out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their subclass, hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs), organic compounds widely used in refrigerants, solvents, and other substances.  The treaty is credited with eliminating nearly 97% of CFCs from the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, however, one of the main substitutes for CFCs are HFCs, which – while lacking the ozone-depleting nature of their predecessors – have up to 10,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

As the NYT explains, the success of the Montreal Protocol stands in stark contrast to the current path of international collaboration to address climate change, started by the Kyoto Protocol:

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Montreal treaty has been signed by all nations. They conduct their business with little drama and with broad scientific and technical input from governments and industry. The financing mechanisms, while occasionally contentious, are generally quickly resolved and seen as equitable.

The ozone treaty was unanimously ratified in 1988 by the United States Senate, which a decade later unanimously voted against adopting the Kyoto Protocol to address climate change. Montreal’s pollution reduction targets are mandatory, universally accepted and readily measurable. None of that is true of the climate process.

However, the NYT reports that despite the appeal of extending the Montreal Protocol to include HFCs, such a dramatic shift may not occur this year.  Some countries have expressed concerns about the rate of proposed decreases in HFCs, and more generally, about the wisdom of retrofitting an agreement designed to target ozone depletion to an entirely different problem.

Last year, Georgetown International Environmental Law Review published an article by Mark W. Roberts and Peter M. Grabiel arguing in favor of this approach.  The article, entitled “A Window of Opportunity: Combating Climate Change by Amending the Montreal Protocol to Regulate the Production and Consumption of HFCs and ODS Banks.” That article can be purchased here.


Posted by: Hannah McCrea, GIELR Staff