Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

The Montreal protocol to protect the Earth’s ozone layer is widely regarded as the most successful international environmental treaty to date, and celebrates its 20th anniversary on September 16.

But the job is not complete – chemicals that deplete the ozone layer are still in use. What is more, these gases are also powerful greenhouse gases. The Montreal Protocol has already done more to curb global warming than the Kyoto Protocol, which is specifically aimed at climate change.

What can those seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions learn from the Montreal Protocol? Nobel-prize-winning chemist Mario Molina argues that the 191-nation protocol should be the vehicle for the first mandatory greenhouse gas cuts in both developing and developed countries.

The protocol also prompted widespread technology transfer, allowing the replacement of the worst ozone-depleting chemicals, says K Madhava Sarma, consultant and former head of the Montreal protocol’s secretariat. Could this be mirrored in reducing carbon dioxide emissions?

Professor Molina and Mr K Madhava Sarma will answer your questions.

Are you saying that further action on the ozone-depleting chemicals that replaced CFCs (HCFCs) can have a bigger effect than the likely reductions in carbon emissions?
Dan, UK

Mario Molina: In the near term further action on the HCFCs can indeed have a bigger effect than the likely reductions in carbon emissions, but of course, my expectation is that in two to four years an international treaty will be negotiated that will directly reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning by insuring that there is a gradually increasing cost associated with those carbon emissions.

K Madhava Sarma: The phase out of HCFCs will give more results than Kyoto Protocol but neither are enough to mitigate climate change. Much more has to be done. Hope the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol agree on doing so and hope the US joins them.

What role do you think technology transfer can and should play in tackling greenhouse gases? How important was this in cutting CFCs?

K Madhava Sarma: Technology transfer is the most important key to reducing GHG. As the IPCC report makes it clear, there are many technical options even now that will economically benefit countries. They are being practised only in a few places. The universalisation of these technical options and best practices will have tremendous impact.

Mario Molina: I believe that technology transfer is crucial, and can be achieved if there is a transfer of funds from the developed to the developing countries. This was the case with the ozone issue, through the Multilateral Fund. The carbon credits and clean development mechanism connected with greenhouse gas emissions should be expanded to insure that technology transfer takes place, as well as development of new technologies appropriate to the various developing countries.

Why do you think led to the success of the Montreal Protocol? Wasn’t it a smaller and easier-to-tackle problem than carbon emissions? So why compare the two?
Damian, London

Mario Molina: The stratospheric ozone is indeed a smaller and easier-to-tackle problem than carbon emissions. Nevertheless, lessons from the Montreal Protocol do apply to the climate problem: first of all, global environmental problems can be solved through international agreements; the precedent of establishing a multilateral fund with the ozone problem was important and led to carbon credits and the clean development mechanism.

Also, the role of an international group of scientists evaluating the problem led to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; etc.

K Madhava Sarma: With hindsight the ozone problem appears to be simpler. It was certainly not so when the the Montreal Protocol was negotiated. The ozone-depleting substances addressed in the treaty were used in thousands of products across nearly 250 sectors. They produced many billions of dollars worth of essential goods like refrigerators, air-conditioners, firefighting appliances etc. The alternatives were costlier. There were no alternatives at all for some uses. The threats from ozone depletion were not clear at all to the developing countries. The main threat of skin cancer was less for brown or black skins whereas the costs were clear.

On the other hand, climate change has already attracted many stakeholders and their organisations, as evidenced by the thousands of individuals and organisations that turn out as observers at the Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol. Most of these stakeholders are already convinced of the great dangers of climate change and knowledgeable about how to mitigate and adapt. Their involvement, however, has so far been at the level of exchange of ideas and has not been translated to action and leadership at the local level.

Climate change will impact on every aspect of human existence – weather patterns, food and natural resource supplies, the spread of diseases among humans, animals and plants, and even the very geography of the planet, with the potential for rising sea levels that will flood coastal areas and redraw the world’s maps. Adequate awareness of the issue and of the means to mitigate or adapt should spur all stakeholders to take action in their own interests.

There are many low-cost or no-cost options to reduce the GHG and there are many collateral benefits in reducing GHG on air pollution, less dependence on fluctuating oil prices etc.

Thus, is easier to to convince people to take action on climate change.

Will success in accelerating the phaseout of HCFCs in Montreal next week re-energise efforts to reduce the use of HCFCs and other ozone-depleting substances as feedstocks?
Stephen Oliver, Maryland

K Madhava Sarma: Thanks for the question. The feedstocks have been completely exempted from controls by the Montreal Protocol. The HCFC 22 is used as a feed stock and the production of HCFC 22 generates HFC-23, a powerful greenhouse gas.

So even if the non-feedstock use of HCFCs is phased out, the production of HCFCs will continue and even grow for feedstock uses and generate more HFC-23. It is time that the Parties give a regulatory signal that they will withdraw the exemption for feedstocks if alternatives are developed. That signal will spur research.

The Montreal Protocol parties will hold their annual meeting next week, and will be consider a proposal to strengthen the treaty to further protect both the ozone layer and climate system, with a potential for climate mitigation many times what is required by the climate treaty. What could possibly stop the parties from taking this decision? It sounds almost too good to be true!
Kelly Rain, US

K Madhava Sarma: All the countries have agreed that it is desirable. The developing countries have asked that the financial assistance fro the Multilateral Fund for phase out of HCFCs should continue on the same terms as given for phase out of CFCs. Will the donor countries agree? If yes, then the strengthening is through. Keep your fingers crossed!

Mario Molina: There might be special interest groups that could influence the negotiations and that would prefer not to accelerate the phase out of HCFCs, because some industries are still making profits.

There might also be different initiatives competing with each other. I hope, however, that the environmental benefits are such that the parties will negotiate to strengthen the treaty.

How important are the role of cities in reducing greenhouse gases? In order to introduce mandatory greenhouse gas cuts, would you start from large metropolitan areas?
Giovanni Padula, Italy

Mario Molina: Cities do play a very important role emitting greenhouse gases, but in my opinion the most efficient way to get them involved is to have emission restrictions at a national level (as is the case with the CFCs) through increased costs (taxes or caps), with each government deciding how to regulate the emissions.

There are already in place a number of commitments from cities in the US and other countries to reduce emissions; these are important commitments, but voluntary measures alone will not solve the problem. A truly international agreement curbing emissions is essential.

85m barrels of oil are extracted and used every day in three main segments: air transport, road/maritime transport, electricity production, with different rates of CO2 emissions. This figure is certainly growing due to both increasing demand from developing countries and population growth. We can certainly have the same kind of statistics for coal. Can you first present us the big picture by type of energy and their respective CO2 emissions by type of usage? Can you confirm that the only serious alternative to cope with the emissions of CO2 will be to develop the carbon capture technologies that extract, on a large scale basis, CO2 from the air and re-inject the carbon back to the earth?

Mario Molina: The use of carbon capture and storage technologies is one of the serious alternatives to tackle the climate problem, but not the only one. The point is that several different lines of action need to be implemented; one alone will not work. These include increased energy efficiency in transportation, housing, power generation, etc.; use of renewable energies (solar, wind, biofuels, etc.); and even the use nuclear energy, provided that new, safer technologies can be developed.

Aren’t tax incentives, rather than global treaties, the best way to change human and corporate behaviour and encourage the use of environmentally friendly alternate energy?
Roger Trythall, South Africa

K Madhava Sarma: The ozone experience shows that incentives are good but we need regulations and policies too. The manufacturers of ozone-depleting CFCs were looking into alternatives from 1980 and had a good idea that the alternative chemicals would be costlier.

The alternatives, if developed then, would not have found a market if the cheaper CFCs continued to be marketed. Hence the development of the alternatives was abandoned, since before 1986 nobody expected that the CFCs would be destined for a phase-out. It is the Montreal Protocol that created the market for the alternatives and spurred more research.

The alternatives were cheaper because of a wider market. In case after case, firms have eliminated CFCs faster, at lower cost, or with greater technological improvements than ever imagined. In fact, the whole phase-out is proving less costly than originally estimated.

Mario Molina: Tax incentives alone are not sufficient. In my view it is important to increase gradually the price of greenhouse gas emission, either through a tax or an emissions cap, and the only way to do that efficiently is through an international agreement. The current price is about $10 - $20 per ton of CO2-equivalent, and that number needs to be increased eventually above $50.

CFCs were a specific problem that companies could solve – i.e. it was a production based problem. Our challenge now with carbon output is that it is commonly an externality where the biggest impact is during usage, and perhaps disposal. The required change is surely in terms of behaviour. How can we encourage a change in behaviour?
Martin Hill, London, UK

K Madhava Sarma: It is not all in terms of behaviour, which, I agree can be changed over the long term through creation of awareness and education. As the IPCC reports make it clear, there are many low-cost, or no-cost options for reducing green house gases that will benefit those who adopt the options. What is needed is to spread awareness of these options and assist to implement the options throughout the world. This has been done by the Montreal Protocol and the methods can be adopted.

You have said the Montreal Protocol has already done more to curb global warming than the Kyoto Protocol, which is specifically aimed at climate change. How do you compare an instrument which has been in force for 18 years, with another with limitations and reductions to be applied starting next year?
Raul A Estrada-Oyuela, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mario Molina: The most efficient solution for the climate change problem, as was the case with the CFCs, is to have a truly international agreement involving a price on greenhouse gas emissions; the change in behaviour follows. The Kyoto Protocol has been in force for several years already; the point is that the Montreal Protocol has done more for climate even though it is aimed at protecting the ozone layer, not the climate. This works because the CFCs and HCFCs happen to be also greenhouse gases, besides depleting stratospheric ozone.

K Madhava Sarma: The KMS-Kyoto Protocol is now nine years old and the UNFCCC is 15 years old. The reductions under Montreal Protocol started even before the Protocol and have been consistently ahead of the obligations of the Protocol, not due to legal obligations but due to creation of awareness, immediate action promotion of country programmes by the developing countries by the Multilateral Fund etc. The Fund:

• required country programmes from each developing country, with specific voluntary goals towards phase out. One benefit from country programmes is that many countries have found it in their interest to adopt ODS phase-out schedules that are more aggressive than those mandated by the Montreal Protocol.

• created focal points and networks that were very useful.

Article 10 of the Kyoto Protocol mandates every Party to:

• formulate, implement, publish and regularly update national and, where appropriate, regional programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change and measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change.

Not much action has been taken to assist countries to prepare such programme.

Given the success of country programmes under the Montreal Protocol, it stands to reason that climate-oriented country programmes, specifically tailored to each country’s needs, could result in GHG emissions reductions well beyond those mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. Setting voluntary goals through country programmes or other similar methods would aid countries and multilateral donor agencies such as the GEF in developing and implementing projects to reduce GHG emissions in developing countries.

Parties to the UNFCCC could base goals and possibly country plans on the numerous options put forward by the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, the Stern Report and others that have identified low-cost and no-cost alternatives.

We all hope the Kyoto will be able to deliver the reductions that the treaty requires, although the fact that the parties have increased their emissions by an average of 6 per cent per cent since 1990, rather than reduce them this much presents an even greater challenge.

One of the latest reports of the IPCC shows how little has been achieved in controlling the GHG since 1992, the year of UNFCCC.

• the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from the pre-industrial value of about 280 parts per million (ppm) to about 379ppm in 2005;

• the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 2005 exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm), as determined from ice cores;

• the annual carbon dioxide concentration growth rate was greater during the last ten years (1995–2005 average increase of 1.9ppm) than ever before since measurements began (1960–2005 average increase of 1.4ppm); and

• the annual fossil carbon dioxide emissions increased from an average of 6.4 gigatons of carbon (Gt C) per year in the 1990s to 7.2 Gt C in 2000–2005

This is partly because the financial mechanism of the KP, has not been encouraged by the KP parties to work with the developing countries systematically. There is no guarantee that the GEF will be replenished appropriately if developing countries prepare their country programmes and demand assistance. The KP parties can learn much from the Multilateral Fund.

While bilateral aid agencies can also assist the developing countries on ozone issues, the projects of these agencies are approved by the Executive Committee. Thus the Fund is the focal point of all assistance to developing countries.

No limits are placed on the quantum of the Fund but the donors have agreed to contribute whatever it takes to achieve the objective. The replenishment of the Fund once in 3 years is made according to needs assessed by the Technology and Economic assessment Panel.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol have the GEF as the financial mechanism but have also created other funds- adaptation Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund, none of which are functioning well. There is much discussion but little action on ground.


Professor Mario Molina is currently at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at University of California San Diego and the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the destruction of ozone by CFCs.

K. Madhava Sarma is the former Executive Secretary of the Secretariat for the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol, UNEP from 1991 to 2000. Before that, Madhava Sarma was a senior Indian administrator looking after environmental policy, law, institutions and international cooperation. He continues to serve on the Montreal Protocol’s Technology and Economic Assessment Panel and work on ozone issues and integration of the common aspects of global environmental treaties for greater synergy.


The ozone treaty can do more

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.