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How the Montreal Protocol helped save the Earth from a climate time bomb


The Montreal Protocol not only saved the ozone layer, but also helped save the Earth from the ticking time bomb of climate change.

The landmark ozone treaty was signed 35 years ago this month, at a time when climate and ozone science was much less developed than it is today. However, each country has signed on, making binding commitments to reduce production, consumption and emissions of chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer, which protects the planet from the sun’s most harmful radiation. The same set of chemicals was also an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and reducing them gave the world valuable time to fight the climate crisis.

“If we allow [chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)] continue to grow, we would have felt the effects of climate change that we are experiencing now … ten years ago,” said David Doniger, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council who has worked on the issue since the 1980s. “And now things would be much worse.”

The protocol’s status as a climate treaty was enhanced by the 2016 Kigali Amendment, named after the capital of Rwanda, where the deal was drawn up, which targeted a class of non-ozone-depleting but climate-impacting coolants. A global phase-out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which the US is now poised to join after a key Senate vote on Wednesday, could avoid half a degree Celsius of warming by 2100, scientists say.

Scientists, lawyers and others who have worked on the issue for decades say that long before international negotiators struck a deal on HFCs, the Ozone Treaty prevented a particularly harmful set of climate superpollutants from entering air conditioners and refrigerators that were in countries that which are developing. finally the acquisition.

David Fahey, director of NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory and co-chair of the Montreal Protocol’s Scientific Evaluation Panel, was among the scientists who traveled to the ozone hole over Antarctica in 1987 on a NASA research aircraft. At the time, there were several competing theories as to why the hole appeared, he said.

But the NASA trip, he said, “created a story, as we call it, which was the main evidence that chlorine destroys ozone on the scale of what could cause the ozone hole in Antarctica.”

The world reacted quickly.

“The Montreal Protocol was being signed in Montreal in the same month that we were flying in southern Chile to Antarctica,” he said. “And it was largely signed without knowing for sure what caused the ozone hole in Antarctica.”

The new agreement was not only a leap of faith in terms of science, but it had attributes that have never been replicated in any subsequent climate treaty, despite a much higher level of scientific certainty.

The treaty is universal and includes 197 countries. It is legally binding and provides penalties for countries that violate its provisions. And it’s fully funded, meaning that poorer countries that may not have been able to meet their chemical phase-down targets have been helped by richer ones.

“There is no other forum that has these three dimensions,” Fahey said, noting that the 2015 Paris climate change agreement relies on voluntary commitments with no penalties for breaking them.

“Probably the main problem with the climate change situation is that we don’t have such a forum,” he said.

DuPont Scientist Key Role

Fahey said there has been an understanding among scientists from the beginning that CFCs play a role in climate change as well as ozone depletion. But that role was clarified by a scientific study published by him and four other scientists in 2007, which looked at “worlds avoided” by stopping the growth of chemicals.

The report found that without the Montreal Protocol, CFC use would have increased. According to a conservative scenario, by 2010 the greenhouse gas content of chemicals would be almost equal to half of the carbon dioxide emissions from all other sources. The impact on the climate would be catastrophic.

“By mid-century, I think those estimates are about two additional degrees,” said Susan Solomon, a professor of environmental studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She noted that if the world continued on its trajectory of increasing CFC use until 2050, the consequences for the ozone layer would threaten the health and survival of all living things on the planet, including humans. It could have been coercive, she said.

“The great news is that we avoided all of that and not only did we save the ozone layer, but we scored a huge win for the climate,” she said.

While CFCs had the biggest impact on climate change, the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that temporarily replaced them continued to have significant climate impacts. After the 2007 document was published, the Montreal Protocol members moved quickly to shorten the HCFC phase-out timeline, an amendment that Fahey said was the first decision taken by the Montreal Protocol to reduce global warming.

HCFCs were replaced by HFCs. And non-ozone-depleting HFCs were to be the final destination of the Montreal Protocol. But they are super-pollutants of the climate, which can be thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Industry initially resisted the idea that HFC use would have a significant impact on climate change. But Fahey believes an industry scientist, DuPont’s Mac McFarland, has changed the debate.

“What Mac understood was growth in developing countries,” he said. “That developing countries are catching up with the developed.”

McFarland began speaking to delegates at the Montreal Protocol’s annual meetings about the role of HFCs in ultimately driving climate change, Fahey said.

“This became one of his main messages not only to delegates, but also to scientists and technologists,” he said. “And it wasn’t very well received or accepted right away. And even scientists — I’m one of them — haven’t quite figured it out, so to speak.”

But in 2009, McFarland, Fahey and other scientists who collaborated on the 2007 paper on the climate consequences of the protocol published a paper on the consequences of running the world’s air conditioners and refrigeration plants on HFCs. And his findings sparked the negotiations that finally led to the creation of the Kigali Amendment eight years later.

Solomon said she was shocked when the Senate voted 69-27 this week to join the Kigali Treaty. The agreement entered into force on January 1, 2019 after reaching the ratification threshold. The United States became the 138th country to sign.

But Solomon said that in the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. led the way in global ozone protection.

“I think the main credit should go to the American people,” she said.

Aid to poor countries

When ozone science was in its infancy, soon after scientists Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina demonstrated in 1974 that CFCs were damaging to the ozone, but before the extent of the damage was known, consumers in the US stopped buying aerosol deodorants and hairsprays.

The consequences were transformative. In 1974, US personal care products accounted for 75 percent of global CFC use. Falling demand forced industry to look for alternatives and made the Montreal Protocol possible.

And countries that now project leadership on climate change and other issues have grabbed hold of their aerosol products.

“The Europeans have actually found themselves on the other side of the negotiating table,” Solomon said. “It was us saying, ‘We’ve got to get rid of these compounds, we’ve got replacements, let’s move on.’ Let’s save the planet.” And Europe said, “Well, you know, we really don’t see a need like you do.”

Solomon also credited former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry with creating the geopolitical momentum that carried Kigali across the finish line.

The immediate climate benefits of protocol reductions in CFCs, HCFCs, and now HFCs are not the full story.

Solomon noted that the protocol’s multilateral fund has helped poor countries gain access to refrigeration by reducing emissions from food waste and spoilage.

NRDC’s Doniger cited a published study Art Nature last year it was found that without the preservation of ozone Montreal Protocol, much less CO2 would have been absorbed over the past 35 years as the world’s biosphere disintegrated.

“Damage to trees and other vegetation would mean they would absorb much less CO2 from the atmosphere,” he said.

The Nature the study claims the protocol helped avoid 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming. For context, scientists warn that the world — and especially vulnerable countries — will face catastrophic damage if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Reprinted from E&E News Courtesy of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.

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