Climate Action

What can we learn from the Montreal Protocol?

In 1985, scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer. That didn’t bode well for anyone.

“It was as if, without warning, the sky opened and the sun burst through all its irradiating, blinding fury…” writes author Nathaniel Rich. “Armageddon descending from above.”

While that description may sound hyperbolic, the impact was potentially devastating. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.

A tremendous effort by the international community culminated in an international agreement, and within two years, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was ratified. Soon, the planet began fixing itself.

On September 23, the United Nations Climate Action Summit is revisiting commitments made in the Paris Agreement, the current international treaty that aims to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by century’s end. With these upcoming talks, one wonders: Can we apply the same gumption and cooperation that we had with the Montreal Protocol to our climate crisis?

In short, it’s complicated.

“[The Montreal Protocol] is obviously very different from the Paris Agreement,” said Nick Nuttall, former U.N. spokesperson and Earth Day Network strategic communications director. “The Montreal Protocol’s limited number of chemicals were far easier to deal with, and it wasn’t a complete transformation of all the levers of the economy.”

Climate change is probably humanity’s greatest threat to date, capable of collapsing societies and wiping out entire species. When you compare a threat that big to anything, even another environmental issue that was tackled through international agreements, it’s not apples to apples.

Still, when it comes to environmental solutions, we should seize any lesson we can learn from, and we can definitely learn from what went down in Montreal in the ‘80s.

Discovering and patching the ozone hole

First, some housekeeping: The ozone hole wasn’t really a hole. The hole that scientists discovered was more of a thinning layer, where concentrations of ozone, or O3, are low. This layer acts a bit like a sunscreen, protecting the planet from harmful UV rays.

“Ozone, together with ordinary molecular oxygen (O2), is able to absorb the major part of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and therefore prevent this dangerous radiation from reaching the surface,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

So, if the ozone were to suddenly disappear, or come under attack by damaging chemicals — dare we say, supplied by humans — we’d be in trouble. That’s exactly what two chemists from the University of California, Irvine, showed in 1974.

That year, scientists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina detailed in the journal Nature how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — common chemicals in refrigerants and aerosol sprays — can destroy the ozone layer. As CFCs enter the atmosphere, the sun breaks down their structure, which releases chlorine atoms. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules, depleting ozone faster than the ozone can be replaced.

thermal view of earth
A false-color view of total ozone over the Antarctic pole. The purple and blue colors are where there is the least ozone, and the yellows and reds are where there is more ozone. Photo credit: NASA

This publication and its impacts eventually led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Rowland and Molina, although worldwide support was slow-coming.

“There was a debate about the science,” says Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, who has been involved in the Montreal Protocol since its inception. “The industry people really were explaining that Molina-Rowland hypothesis was from outer space and that these guys were crackpots.” (Industry attacking science — sound familiar?)

Despite initial backlash, Rowland and Molina’s research was validated more than a decade later, when British scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica in 1985. Through the groundwork done by Rowland and Molina, the connection was made between human activity and thinning in the ozone layer.

Soon, people realized the drastic effects a hole in the ozone layer could have. Without quick action, the impacts could have been devastating. Harmful UV rays that penetrate the Earth’s stratosphere can lead to increased rates of skin cancer and cataracts. The Australian government predicted that without a solution, the case of skin cancer could have risen two-hundredfold within its borders. If we didn’t do something quick, we’d be in deep trouble.

Lucky for us, we did something.

It culminated in 1987 with the U.N. Montreal Protocol, a landmark agreement banning CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances. The agreement set a mandatory timetable for the phasing out of main ozone-depleting substances and provided money to developing countries to help them phase out these substances. Meanwhile, the companies that made these chemicals also got on board.

“The industry learned how to work in harmony with the Montreal Protocol,” says Zaelke. “They learned that they could innovate and create better refrigerants that have lower impact on the environment, in terms of ozone depletion and climate.”

The protocol is still the only U.N. treaty to be unanimously ratified by all U.N. member states. Today, the ozone hole is repairing itself and is expected to make a full recovery, healing itself completely in the coming decades. Just as important are the effects this treaty has had in combatting climate change. From 1989–2013, the protocol’s ban on certain chemicals reduced cumulative CO2-equivalent emissions by 135 billion tons.

Today, the treaty is widely considered one of the greatest environmental successes in human history. So, can we apply what we learned from this massive success to the challenges we now face with global warming?

From Montreal to Paris

Despite the scientific consensus that humans have accelerated climate change, global leaders still drag their feet on the issue.  For at least 30 years (and some would say more like 50–60), politicians, scientists and industries have recognized the causes of climate change and its catastrophic impacts.

So, how did we rally behind our ozone-hole problem so fast? At first glance, the similarities between climate change and the ozone hole seem apparent. Although the ozone problem is more narrowly focused than climate change, both problems are human caused, both problems have scientific consensus and both problems, despite scientific complexities, can still be explained in one or two sentences. (Let’s try it for climate change: Burning fossil fuels emits gasses that trap heat and make the planet warmer. Chaos ensues.)

So, what gives? Well, it turns out there’s quite a bit of difference between Montreal and Paris.

For one, in addition to the environmental impacts — like harming plants and marine ecosystems — a hole in the ozone layer had immediate human health impacts. According to the EPA, a thinned ozone layer could lead to skin cancers and cataracts. People tend to react to that kind of threat, whereas climate change hurts us in the long run but not always immediately.

“We are very well adapted to respond to immediate threats but slow to accommodate moving change,” writes George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

view of Earth's atmosphere from space
In 1985, scientists discovered a thinning layer in the Earth’s stratosphere, where concentrations of ozone, or O3, were low. This layer acts a bit like a sunscreen, protecting the planet from harmful UV rays. Photo credit: NASA

The hole in the ozone layer was one thing everyone could point to, with a cause and effect: CFCs are destroying the ozone layer, so to fix it, we need to ban CFCs. Climate change problems, however, are “multifaceted in every respect — they are incomplete, contradictory, and constantly changing,” writes Marshall.

Climate change is also inherently tied to the economy. Greenhouse gases like CO2 are prevalent in huge sectors of national economies, like transportation, manufacturing, energy and infrastructure. Comparatively, CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances were limited to few industries.

“The [ozone] problem was confined to a limited number of chemicals and a limited number of companies — not, as is the case with climate change, a transformation of the global economy away from two centuries of development based on fossil fuels,” said Nuttall.

The limited scope of CFCs and the ozone hole also helped focus the efforts of scientists, making the problem much more manageable to solve.

“The [Montreal Protocol] benefited from being a focused sectoral agreement — the fluorinated-gas universe,” continued Zaelke, in an email. “This allowed the scientists, technologists, and policymakers to learn faster, the technology to develop faster and for scientists, businesses and policymakers to gain confidence to do more and more.”

This focus across sectors may be where we can start looking to the Montreal Protocol as a model for our approach to tackling climate change.

What we can learn from Montreal

Zaelke thinks a sectoral approach could be applied to climate change. Take two high-emitting industries: cement and steel manufacturing. Zaelke believes a coordinated effort that divides the climate problem into sectors can encourage faster learning. And, like industries adjusting to the regulations of the Montreal Protocol, this sectoral approach can drive technology forward while reducing environmental impacts.

The Montreal Protocol also called for Multilateral Fund, established in 1990, which was “basically money contributed by developed countries and renewed periodically that paid developing countries and developing country industries to make the switches to the new generations of chemicals,” said Nuttall.

A similar pledge exists in the Paris Agreement called the Green Climate Fund, which pledges $100 billion annually by 2020. So far, however, donor nations have only contributed $10.3 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Another big reason the Montreal Protocol worked was because of the public support generated by scientists-turned-advocates. That advocacy must be present today if we’re going to reduce some of the most devastating effects of global warming.

Rowland and Molina became advocates, which made them prey to backlash and skepticism in the short run (see above). But at the same time, it got the point across and delivered the urgent message of the ozone hole (and awarded them a Nobel Prize, years later). Because of their advocacy, says Zaelke, people began boycotting bug sprays, hairsprays and other spray cans that propelled these ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere.

Advocacy is understandably a big leap for many scientists, who prefer the lab to the press room. But when it comes to an issue as important as climate change, it’s necessary. One can already see the changes in scientists representing in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), acting more and more like advocates with each new terrifying report.

To drive these messages home, scientists need to become powerful communicators, using clear, accessible language, real-life examples and relatable metrics.

Another lesson from Montreal? To solve a runaway environmental crisis, it helps to bring it in check quickly. The Montreal Protocol worked because an international committee assembled and solved the issue with the urgency the crisis demanded. They recognized that every day they didn’t address CFCs made the problem worse.

Point in case, 2018’s landmark IPCC report, which gave us 12 years to avert catastrophe wouldn’t have been so drastic (or dire) if we had started making gradual changes back in the ’80s.

This precautionary principle is important, because it avoids “far bigger, longer, more expensive and potentially more damaging consequences that can arise by postponing action,” said Nuttall.

“Even eventually with the superb, cooperative, efforts of governments, the U.N., industry and NGOs,” he continued, “it can take decades to turn around a big global environmental challenge, as we know the ozone layer will not fully heal for many years to come.”

Because of decades of inaction, we’ll also be feeling the effects of climate change for some time.

Take the wins when you can

Let’s not forget about the huge effects the Montreal Protocol has had. In a world where effective action on climate change is dreadfully slow, we must hold onto the wins we have and use them to model the future. Without such mindsets, we’ll never drive off the climate despair and even the nihilism that comes with it.

The Montreal Protocol is a story too often overlooked because it doesn’t deal with more prominent greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. But the treaty’s co-benefits of reducing effects on climate change are a huge part of the protocol’s story.

sunset over earth's atmosphere
In a world where effective action on climate change is dreadfully slow, the Montreal Protocol serves as a rare success and model for the future.

Chemicals like CFCs and its replacements HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) and now HFCs (hydroflorocarbon) are major contributors to climate change. HFCs don’t harm the ozone layer but have 1,000–9,000 the warming capacity than carbon dioxide. These chemicals are commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning.

These chemicals’ warming potentials are so bad that according to Project Drawdown, refrigeration management is the number-one way (yes, you read that correctly) to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reverse global warming. Fortunately, the Montreal Protocol continues to expand in scope.

A big part of Montreal Protocol’s success is that it wasn’t a one-and-done back in the ‘80s. Rather the treaty has been amended over and over, each time making the agreement better for the environment. The Kigali Amendment is the latest such update, and it proposes to phase out HFCs, starting with higher-income countries and working down toward all counties by 2024. This phaseout would limit global warming by 0.5 degrees Celsius this century.

We need all hands on deck to slow and reverse the trends of global warming. The Montreal Protocol provides us with a good model of the future, showing a successful execution of international environmental policy. Sure, the Montreal Protocol differs from the Paris Agreement, but we can only stand to gain from studying the former’s success.

There’s still time to reach a manageable and sustainable future, but to do that, we must pull out all the stops. That includes learning from our past.