Montreal Protocol

We must come together to protect the future of our planet. Thomas Weil details the health risks and problems associated with the depletion of the ozone layer as well as the details of the amendment to the Montreal Protocol. 

A month ago, on October 14, 2016, senior representatives from more than 170 countries meeting in Kigali, Rawanda, approved an important amendment to the Montreal Protocol, to phase out the use of gases that influence the greenhouse effect.

The Montreal Protocol (the “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer,”)  was created in 1987 after work in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated a rapid depletion of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere.  

The ozone layer, from 6 to about 30 miles above the Earth’s surface, blocks solar radiation of less than 290 nanometers (visible light ranges from 380-750 nanometers, extending from purple, through blue, green, yellow, and orange, to red), as well as ultraviolet and other forms of radiation that have harmful effects for humans, other animals, plants and other organisms.

The principal, man-made cause of ozone depletion is the production and widespread use of hydroflourocarbons (HFCs).  Rowland and Molina theorized that HFCs combine with solar radiation in the stratosphere and decompose into, among other compounds, chlorine and chlorine monoxide, which catalyze destruction of trioxygen (O3) or ozone molecules.

Since then, a variety of agents have been proven as catalysts of the destruction of stratospheric ozone, including HFCs, freons, carbon tetrachloride, and tricholroethane. These compounds, which are found in refrigerants, solvents, and propellants have come under scrutiny.

Reducing the Harmful Effects of Ozone Depletion

Reducing ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere will have direct, positive effects for life on Earth.  It is estimated that by 2060, the total, cumulative economic benefit of the Montreal Protocol will be $1.8 trillion, of which 80% will accrue due to health benefits, such as fewer fatal and non-fatal cases of skin cancer, reduction in eye cataracts that can lead to blindness, as well as benefits to fisheries and agriculture worldwide.

Is the Kigali Agreement Perfect?

The “Kigali Amendment” to the Montreal Protocol, unlike previous climate change accords, including the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, does not rely on voluntary agreement, which may be subject to the political will of multiple countries leaders and electorates.  

There are three parts to this new agreement.   

The United States and countries of the European union will freeze production and use of HFCs by 2018, to reach the 15% level of 2012 consumption by 2036.  African countries, Brazil, and China, among others, will freeze HFC use by 2024, to reach 20% of 2021 (anticipated) levels by 2045.  India, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, among others, will freeze HFC consumption by 2028 and reduce production to 15% of expected 2025 levels by 2047.  

Should these efforts succeed, it is estimated that besides its effect on reversing ozone depletion, it will have some influence on climate change, by removing roughly 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2050, with the potential to reduce global warming up to 0.5oC.

The Kigali agreement set specific targets and dates, as noted above, to replace HFCs with other, environmentally-safe alternatives, plus trade sanctions to punish nations that flout the agreement, and support from wealthier countries to help poorer nations finance replacements.

While the European Union and the United States had pushed for a more stringent plan, to reduce HFC levels to 15% of 2012 output by 2046, countries that are still developing – and in warmer climates – advocated for a slower pace.  The Kigali Amendment may not be perfect because of this, but it is an important step forward.  

As United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon has stated, “the example of the Montreal Protocol sends a powerful message that action on major global challenges is not only possible, but that the financial and human benefits invariably outweigh the costs “

While the Kigali agreement is another important step in controlling HFCs and protecting the ozone layer and Earth’s environment, more aggressive HFC reductions are needed and are possible.

It is incumbent upon us to act

In addition, the success of the original Montreal Protocol and successor amendments, including those in Kigali, only speak to the work that needs to be done across a much broader range of options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – of which HFCs are but one fractional part – and stem the tide of climate change.  It is estimated that 2016 will be the warmest year on record .  Certainly, 2016 will be one of the 8 warmest years on record for Earth – if not the warmest – and all 8 have occurred in the past 18 years (NOAA site, op cit.).

The international community must be take further steps to address this problem.  And, the new Trump administration must act even more strongly than the Obama administration to reduce GHG emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Thomas Jefferson, a republican of original intent, wrote to James Madison, in 1789:  “This principle, that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead,… will exclude… the ruinous and contagious errors… which have armed despots with means which nature does not sanction, for binding in chains their fellow-men,”

Jefferson’s comments on the US Constitution, which Madison was engaged in helping to create, can, I think, also be interpreted in a forward-looking fashion:  that the Earth belongs not just to the present, but to the future; and those who come after us will be burdened by decisions we made.  Our descendants may not be able, 25, 50, or 100 years from now be able to undo, irrespective of the ingenuity they possess, what we did not have the will to prevent.

It is incumbent upon us to act.  For, as the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius noted almost 2,000 years ago, “that which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees.”  It is incumbent upon us to act, now – by protecting the Earth we preserve ourselves.

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Thomas Weil was a Yale Young Global Scholar in 2016.

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