George Bernard Shaw once said that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. When the UN conference on the Montreal Protocol on the substances that deplete the ozone layer ended in Montreal on November 24, albeit in the wee hours of November 25, I thought this could also be said for Paris and Montreal, not only because of the French language but also the agreements signed there on global action on the climate.
The UN meeting in Montreal celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the success of the phase-out of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS). The meeting in Bonn a week before, after its 25 years of global efforts, was still wondering how to even finalise the rulebook to stabilise the climate and keep the temperature rise to not more than to 2 degrees Celsius before 2100, while making efforts to limit that rise to 1.5 degrees — the objective of the Paris Climate Agreement.
While US President Donald Trump is walking out of the keenly-negotiated Paris pact, he has surprisingly decided to support the Montreal Protocol, including its 2.0 version that now includes full-blast action against climate change. He has even agreed to take a nearly 25 per cent share of funding of over $500 million pledged by the developed countries to provide to the developing countries. The deal to provide $500 million over the next three years for the purpose was sealed in Montreal last week.
It was warm news in the freezing temperatures at Montreal in contrast to the cold winds blowing from the Bonn climate conference.
The extraordinary success story of the Montreal Protocol never seems to have a full stop. Though Trump never tweeted about it, this multilateral environmental accord, brokered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1987, was signed by the Republican President Ronald Reagan and fully supported by the Democrats.
Under the treaty, developed countries pledged all the incremental financial support to the developing countries during their transition away from ODS. More importantly, that pledge was honoured year after year without interruption, even during the global financial crisis. It has now reached a cumulative amount of $3.5 billion.
Developing countries responded by implementing the transition to ozone-friendly technologies. The protocol has already achieved its goal of phasing out nearly 100 percent of millions of tonnes of more than 90 man-made ODSs like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), used mainly in refrigeration, air conditioning, foams and solvents. The factories producing these chemicals have literally shut down.
If the slogan “Yes We Can” has a real-life example, it is this one. In one single generation, these ozone depleting chemicals were invented, their catastrophic impact on the stratospheric ozone layer that shields life on the Earth was scientifically identified, global action to phase them out was agreed through an international agreement, developing countries were provided by the developed countries all the incremental costs and technologies — and the phase-out of these chemicals was achieved exactly on the targeted year and day.
Never before has such an astonishing chain of actions been triggered and taken to its completion.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called it “…the single-most successful international environmental agreement to date”. Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment, during the opening ceremony on November 24, called the Montreal Protocol “a testimony of the spirit of togetherness of nations and humans”.
That “togetherness” has carried the Montreal Protocol’s success beyond the phase-out of ODS. Major ODS like CFCs are also Green House Gases (GHGs). Thus, their phase-out under the Protocol has, as a side benefit, also resulted in the permanent cumulative emission reduction of GHGs to the extent of 130 giga tonnes equivalent of carbon dioxide by 2010, compared to just about one giga tonne of GHGs reduction aimed by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol. In reality, GHGs increased during this period.
While the Montreal Protocol did successful market transformation to an ozone-friendly world, the Kyoto Protocol remained fatally flawed. The 2015 Paris pact, a follow-up to the unfinished Kyoto Protocol, is still faltering and fudgy.
The “togetherness” highlighted by Solheim is conspicuous by its absence from climate agreements. However, it was ever evident under the Montreal Protocol. The latest achievement came when, in 2016, all 197 countries agreed to deploy the institutions nurtured under the Montreal Protocol for the last 30 years to now phase-down the deadly GHG — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — some of which are more than 10,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. The developed countries, led by the US, pledged financial and technology support.
That was an unprecedented decision, because the seminal objective of the Montreal Protocol was to get rid of ODS and not GHGs. “It was like using Non-Proliferation Treaty for nuclear weapons to control the trade in drugs and crime,” said an African environmental law expert, commenting on the decision in Kigali. The Montreal Protocol, in other words, was used as a “surrogate mother” to carry the seeds of the Paris pact to deliver a climate-friendly baby.
There are two-fold reasons for that unusual action: First, HFCs were introduced as substitute for CFCs and other ODS due to their zero-ozone depleting potential. The countries therefore considered that getting away from HFCs would correct their unintended error and contribute to mitigation of climate change. Second, the developed countries agreed to the incremental funding for the developing countries for their — yet another — transformation from HFCs to non-HFCs.
Thus, the Montreal Protocol has now entered its version 2.0 and became the treaty to reduce the emissions of the most potent global warming gas — HFC — which, incidentally, is also one of the six groups of the GHGs under the Paris pact.
Developed countries will start reducing HFCs as early as 2019, while developing countries will start later. Phasing down HFCs under the Protocol is expected to avoid up to 0.5 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, while continuing to protect the ozone layer. If the energy efficiency improvements due to use of non-HFCs in refrigeration and air conditioning appliances are taken into account, then the avoided warming would be even more. That will be equivalent of achieving at least 25 per cent of the objective of the Paris pact.
The world should now concede some cool points to President Trump and his administration amidst the warming and hot chaos.
By Rajendra Shende
(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre, a former UNEP Director and an IIT Alumnus. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])