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The Montreal Protocol - Proof That Countries Actually Can Cooperate

David Doniger's picture
Policy Director Natural Resources Defense Council

David Doniger has been at the forefront of the battle against air pollution and global climate change since he joined NRDC in 1978. He helped formulate the Montreal Protocol, an international...

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I just posted a report on the latest meeting of the parties to the Montreal Protocol, in Bali Indonesia.  Let me add a personal reflection, as this is the Thanksgiving holiday weekend back home in America.  Bali is a beautiful place, but on the whole I’d rather be sharing turkey leftovers with my family right now.  Wherever you are, it is worth taking a moment to give thanks for the world’s most successful environmental treaty.  

We too often take the rescue of the ozone layer for granted.  A whole generation has grown up not hearing about the threat to the earth’s ozone layer, except maybe once a year when the recurrence of the ozone hole gets a brief mention on the news. 

In fact, a global disaster was averted by global collective action.  If countries hadn’t agreed, starting in 1987, to phase out nearly 100 CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals, the thin layer of stratospheric ozone that protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation would have been badly depleted, and rates of skin cancer, cataracts, and other illnesses would be soaring off the charts around the worldAnd because many of those ozone-depleting chemicals are also powerful heat-trapping gases, the dangerous weather extremes of climate change would be coming on even faster and harder.    

So let us give thanks for the Montreal Protocol as proof positive that the earth’s nearly 200 countries can effectively cooperate, when they want to.  Let’s remember that as those same countries assemble next week in Durban for the next round of climate treaty talks. 

Bali meeting Montreal Protocol 11-11.PNG

Delegates playing a cover version of “You Raise Me Up,” made famous by Josh Grogan, on their traditional instrument, the angklung, during the opening ceremony.  See if you can find me.  (Where’s Waldo hint:  look in the upper left.)  Picture courtesy of IISD Reporting Services, 

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Nov 26, 2011

Doniger has been centrally involved with ozone depletion negotiations since before the Montreal Protocol was signed.  This comment is not pretending to offer info to him.  

There is no dispute that the Montreal Protocol is “the most successful climate treaty to date“, although that fact is not generally appreciated.  

Mario Molina was the lead author of this study which explained why – “because chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and most other ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) that it has phased out are powerful GHGs with high GWPs [global warming potentials] that contribute 12% of the radiative forcing from long-lived GHGs and 20% of net anthropogenic forcing in 2005”

Further “significant” impact on the overall climate forcing power caused by human activity could be achieved by tweaking the Montreal Protocol and looking at other non CO2 trace gases and particles.  Ramanathan, one of Molina’s co-authors, said “cutting HFCs, black carbon, tropospheric ozone, and methane can buy us about 40 years…”  

Hansen used graphics in a 2004 paper to illustrate the situation with gases controlled by the Montreal Protocol as well as the substitutes that were brought in to replace them that are increasing in abundance in the atmosphere now.  

The first graphic shows, with the black line that declines toward zero, that by the mid 2000s the total climate forcing power of the gases controlled by the Montreal Protocol was not adding anything extra to the total human caused climate forcing power that is added every year.  In other words, the most successful climate action to date only stopped the growth of the impact of a portion of what humans are doing.  












If someone was clubbing your child with hammer blows of steadily increasing power, you could say after this “successful” action to do something about it, i.e. the Montreal Protocol, each new increase in size of hammer blow is now a bit smaller than it would otherwise have been.  The hammer blows nevertheless continue to become steadily more powerful.  

Its not much if you thought the net human impact on climate has become so dangerous that it has to be eliminated, but it is something.  

Hansen points out that the substitutes that were brought in, especially the substitute refrigerant HFC-134a, are increasing in abundance in the atmosphere which are turning this picture back into one of steady growth in climate forcing power coming from these types of gases:

Although the total forcing power of gases controlled under the Montreal Protocol is preojected to be declining (the blue line) this century, the power of the OTGs, the “other trace gases” the Protocol does not control, such as HFC-134a, will steadily rise unless humans start to understand that they could limit their impact on essential planetary systems by applying a bit o knowledge, instead of just mindlessly trashing the only planet known to support life in the universe.  

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