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Montreal Protocol’s Greenhouse Effect

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: September 24, 2007


A twenty-year-old treaty designed to protect the ozone layer is now generating interest as a possible vehicle for reducing greenhouse gases. The aim of the 1987 Montreal Protocol was to phase out production of chemicals thought to be responsible for ozone depletion. Although the ozone layer may not recover for at least a half-century—the chemicals linger in the atmosphere for years—the treaty has been hailed as an environmental success. Now some experts say it serves a double purpose (FT), reducing greenhouse gases and potentially delaying the effects of global warming by up to twelve years. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a special summit (AP) on September 24 with an appeal for a breakthrough in international talks to curtail emissions of suspected global-warming gases.

New assessments suggest (Ottawa Citizen) the accelerating push to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals, combined with the introduction of more climate-friendly products, could in the coming decades cut greenhouse gases equivalent in their effect to twenty-five gigatons of carbon dioxide. Allan Thornton, head of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international organization fighting environmental crimes, told a U.S. congressional committee in May 2007 that the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) reduced the equivalent of billions of tons of carbon dioxide. But he also described (PDF) it as “a cautionary tale of the consequences of not actively considering the impacts, particularly on the climate, of actions taken under the Montreal Protocol.” Thornton points out the damage done to the climate by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful that carbon dioxide used as “transitional” substitutes to CFCs. An upcoming CFR Council Special Report will emphasize the national security importance of an effective climate change policy.

A coalition including the United States, European Union, and UN experts succeeded in accelerating the ban (AP) on ozone-depleting chemicals at a conference last week in Montreal. Developed countries will phase out HCFCs by 2020, and developing countries will do so by 2030; ten years earlier than scheduled in each case. Some experts and the Bush administration, which pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, argue such action would produce more significant results for reducing greenhouse gas emissions when compared with Kyoto.

Both supporters and critics of the ozone treaty say its impact merits reflection. “The lesson from Montreal is that curbing global warming (NYT) will not be as hard as it looks,” said David D. Doniger, ozone and climate expert at the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. But Ben Lieberman, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, argues that singling out the ozone treaty as a model for climate change should be reconsidered (China Post), arguing that damage to the ozone layer has been proven an “exaggerated threat” and has not matched the “lurid predictions” of skin cancer epidemics or eco-system destruction.

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