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Author: Sara Phillips
Source: ABC News
Date: 23 November, 2012

The Montreal Protocol is an international environmental treaty that inspired the current climate change negotiations. Ironically, it is the failure of those negotiations that now imperils the Protocol.

Hairspray, cancer, Ronald Regan and a Nobel Prize were the star players in a story that has unfolded over the last 25 years. It’s the story of the Montreal Protocol and the world’s efforts to patch up the hole that formed in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

It’s a story which has involved much backslapping and congratulation and which is held up as a model for the current United Nations climate negotiations.

But the story of the Montreal Protocol is not yet finished. Not by a long shot.

It started back in the 1970s, when various groups of scientists realised that a group of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had a tendency to drift up to the layer of ozone gas that surrounds the Earth and break up the ozone molecules. Research revealed that the ozone layer was becoming thin, especially over the south pole.

Ultra-violet radiation is a normal part of sunlight. Most of the UV hitting the Earth gets filtered out by the ozone layer, meaning that for the people, plants and animals, sunscreen has been applied at a global scale. A thinning of our sunscreen layer means we are more likely to get enough UV to spark skin cancer.

CFCs were found in aerosol cans that sprayed substances like deodorant and hairspray and in refrigerants, fire extinguishers and solvents for cleaning. Other ozone depleting chemicals were found too.

Fortunately, scientists also realised that CFCs could be substituted for a related group of chemicals, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which didn’t tear apart ozone molecules in the same way.

So in 1985 the nations of the world agreed to start drafting an agreement to replace CFCs with HFCs. By 1987 it was ready and at a meeting in Montreal, Canada, the world, including Republican President Ronald Reagan, signed up.

Since then, the Montreal Protocol has seen 98 per cent of ozone depleting substances phased out of production. The Cancer Council of Victoria says research suggests there will be 16 per cent fewer cases of skin cancer each year by 2030 than if the Protocol had not been implemented.

In 2003, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international environmental agreement to date”.

The scientists who worked out the CFC and ozone chemistry won the 1995 Nobel Prize.

So gold stars all round, everyone. Well done.

Except for one teeny tiny little problem: the HFCs that came to the rescue of the ozone layer are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Big time.

One kilogram of HFC-23, a chemical used as a fire extinguisher that replaced the ozone depleting CFC-13, is the same as unleashing 9,100 kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about the same amount of CO2 you would save if you assiduously pedalled your bicycle everywhere for three years instead of driving.

One estimate predicts HFCs could account for as much as 45 per cent of the greenhouse gases warming our globe by 2050, particularly if we succeed in cutting our CO2 emissions.

So what’s to be done? Without HFCs, skin cancer rates will increase. With HFCs, the world warms.

It has been suggested that the UN body on climate change, the UNFCCC, should incorporate the phasing out of HFCs into its wish list. The UNFCCC is meeting in Doha next week to discuss the next step in its long-awaited international climate change treaty. HFCs are on the agenda.

The Montreal Protocol, meanwhile, is the inspiration for the current United Nations negotiations on climate change. The global talks on climate started back in 1992, not long after the Montreal Protocol started to prove its worth. The success of the Protocol is also the reason the UNFCCC talks persist, despite very little evidence of achievement in the intervening 20 years. ‘We got it right once,’ so the thinking goes, ‘surely we could do it again.’

But Connie Hedegaard, Europe’s Commissioner for Climate Action and a key UN player, has proposed the UNFCCC not be the instrument for cutting HFCs. Instead, she says, there is an existing international agreement which has the approval of the world and has proven its success over the last 25 years: yes, the Montreal Protocol.

She says the Montreal Protocol should be modified to introduce the phase out of HFCs. Alternative chemicals are ready to step up and fill the role, she says.

The danger with this plan is that in tinkering with a treaty that has been remarkably successful, there is the possibility that it will lose its efficacy.

Back when the treaty was drafted, DuPont, who made most of the CFCs, questioned the science that showed the chemicals had an adverse effect on the ozone layer. Since that time, vested interest lobbying has honed its craft to the point where action on climate change from government is stymied by any number of rentseekers, think-tanks and academics with an interest in blocking progress.

The Montreal Protocol, which was ratified with comparatively little global quibbling, should be wary of being caught up in similar shenanigans in 2012. Otherwise there is a risk that the Protocol that so convinced the world that global environmental treaties can work, will be dragged down to the same bickering, sluggish bureaucracy as the UNFCCC.

Read the article in ABC Environment.