This month, 191 nations will honor (and maybe mend) a pact that's saving the atmosphere's ozone layer. The 20th anniversary of the Montreal treaty, however, not only marks a win in phasing out ozone-depleting chemicals used in coolants, it's a model for more action on global warming.
The 1987 treaty has worked well to prevent more of the sun's ultraviolet rays from striking Earth. So well in fact that the United States is proposing at this week's anniversary-gathering in Montreal to move up one of the treaty's deadlines. It wants to end the substitute use of a family of chemicals, known as hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs.
Back when the treaty took effect in 1987, this form of chlorine was pushed as a transitional replacement for far more damaging chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that had been used in refrigerators, fire extinguishers, and other products since the 1930s. Under the treaty, 95 percent of CFCs have been phased out in richer nations while in poorer nations, more than half of CFC use has ended.
But while the newer chemicals (HCFCs) deplete ozone to a small degree, scientists have since proven that their use also produces a byproduct 12,000 times more powerful as a heat-trapping agent than carbon dioxide. They are thus a contributor to that other atmosphere-altering problem, global warming.
In addition, chemical companies such as DuPont – which invented CFCs – have created substitutes for HCFCs that have little or no effect on the protective, stratospheric ozone. The new substitutes would further close the "holes" created in the ozone layer, mainly above the poles.
But another big reason to phase out HCFCs more quickly, as the US proposes, is to improve the Kyoto Protocol, and thus perhaps help the drive for a successor treaty.
Under the 1997 Kyoto treaty, a company in a participating developed country can forgo cleaning up its own carbon pollution by paying for a project in another country that will contribute to a slowing of carbon output. One popular source of such "carbon credits" is building incinerators to destroy a byproduct made during the manufacture of HCFCs.
China has reportedly earned more than $4 billion so far in credits from companies in Europe and Japan by burning the byproduct, known as HFC-22. That gives China a perverse incentive to keep making HCFCs. And these relatively inexpensive credits for the incinerators are pricing out better types of carbon credits.
China now wants to adjust the Montreal pact so it can continue to sell credits for HCFC plants. It also opposes the US proposal that would move up the deadline for an HCFC-phaseout to the year 2030 from 2040 for developing countries.
To prevent the perverse pecuniary application of both treaties, the loopholes in both the Kyoto and Montreal treaties obviously need to be fixed.
In addition, nations not party to Kyoto need to study the lessons of the Montreal treaty, which may be the world's most successful environmental pact. It was a global effort, albeit one targeted at only a few industries with little impact on consumers. But it was one that saved untold numbers of lives.
Gratitude for that treaty's effects can compel solutions for a new one on global warming.