Ozone Treaty Could Slow Climate Change
Delegates from 191 nations are in Montreal, Canada this week to celebrate and extend the world's most successful environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer.
With 95 percent of the target chemicals now eliminated, there is strong support to accelerate the phase-out of newer ozone-depleting chemicals that are also powerful greenhouses gases. In fact, many experts believe this meeting could do more to reduce greenhouse emissions than the more widely-publicised Kyoto Protocol. Challenges do remain -- the United States continues to use large amounts of methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting substance (ODS), and the economic booms in China and India have rapidly increased the numbers of air conditioners using replacement chemicals. Delegates attending the 20th anniversary celebration of the Montreal Protocol and the official 19th Meeting of the Parties here refer to themselves as the "ozone family". They came in the mid-1980s to tackle the recent discovery of holes and thinning of the ozone layer that protects every biological being from harmful exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Increased levels of UV in recent decades have been linked to higher levels of skin cancer, eye disease and other health problems in humans and many other species. "The science behind the causes of ozone depletion was not very strong at the time," noted Tom McElroy, an ozone researcher at Environment Canada. "But the international community proceeded to deal with the problem because of the potential risks," McElroy said in an interview. Scientists Sherwood Rowland of the United States and Mario Molina of Mexico started research in 1974 that gradually established that two chemical families -- chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs (found in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosol propellants), and halons (in fire extinguishers) -- were reducing the amount of ozone in the stratosphere. They, along with Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, won the Nobel Prize for their work. Rowland and Molina, who spoke to delegates on Sunday, said they had to develop a new kind of atmospheric chemistry, but the mounting evidence that ozone levels had fallen more than 30 percent over Antarctica alarmed some nations, particularly Argentina. "In the southern part of Argentina, children couldn't play outside because of the ozone hole in the spring," said Romina Picolotti, Argentina's environment minister. "There was enough scientific evidence to act. You don't need to be 100 percent certain," Picolotti told IPS. Argentina, along with the United States, Canada and a few other countries, pushed for an international treaty to curb ozone-depleting substances such as CFCs. "In nine months, agreement had been reached -- an astonishingly quick period of time," said Richard Benedick, the chief U.S. negotiator and former ambassador. In 1987, 24 countries signed on to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, and today 191 countries participate in the treaty. Benedick says this quick agreement came as a result of creating a flexible treaty that could be adjusted as the science improved and that had the full cooperation of the chemical industry. The small number of nations also made it easier to negotiate -- unlike today's enormous meetings such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. "Negotiations in 1987 were acrimonious but we reached a fragile balance," recalled Victor Buxton, a chemical engineer and one of Canada's representatives. Where formal agreements couldn't be reached, countries opted for informal ones on many key issues such as technology transfer, emissions credits, and financial assistance. The Montreal Protocol had incentives built in to encourage non-participant countries to join sooner rather than later, and added trade sanctions to eliminate imports from other countries. The final key was the creation in 1990 of the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, a multi-million-dollar fund to help developing countries phase out production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals. Some 49 industrialised countries have contributed over 2.2 billion dollars to date and 146 countries have received monies from the fund. "The Multilateral Fund was the key to the Montreal Protocol's success," said Ambassador Juan Antonio Mateos of Mexico, adding, "We're unable to create one for the Kyoto Protocol." In addition, there has been a push against multilateral agreements internationally, with many countries favouring unilateral or bilateral approaches, he said. "We most move back to multilateralism if we are to get a strong climate treaty," Mateos told IPS. Although the ozone depletion issue is not entirely solved and the ozone layer will not recover until 2060 or 2070, climate change is the major topic of conversation here. There are two reasons for this: most ODS are also global warming gases and there is hope that the Montreal Protocol can be a model for a strong and effective climate treaty. Between 1990 and 2000, the elimination of those ODS resulted in a net reduction of 25 billion tonnes of global warming gases. "The latest science shows that an accelerated phase-out of ODS under the Montreal Protocol can help us get to a low carbon future," said Achim Steiner, U.N. undersecretary-general and executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) at a press conference here. HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), the less damaging replacements for the older CFCs, have now become widespread in products such as refrigeration systems, air conditioning units and foams. But HCFCs are very powerful greenhouse gases. Under the Montreal Protocol, use of HCFCs is set to cease in developed countries in 2030 and in developing ones in 2040. A more rapid freeze on consumption and production of HCFCs, and bringing forward the final phase-out to 10 years or so would over the coming decades deliver cumulative emission reductions equaling up to 38 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to UNEP. The Kyoto Protocol is intended to eliminate a mere two billion metric tonnes in a first 2008-12 phase. Annually, that could represent a cut equal to over 3.5 percent of all the world's current greenhouse emissions. In contrast the Kyoto Protocol, the main greenhouse gas emission reduction treaty, was agreed with the aim of reducing developed countries' 1990 emissions levels by just over five percent by 2012. Countries here profess support for a more rapid phase-out, but the details have yet to be negotiated. "If we can use the Protocol to accelerate the phase-out it will be a tremendous benefit for the ozone layer and a major contribution in the reduction in greenhouse gases," said Steiner.
© 2007 IPS- Inter Press Service