Beyond Kyoto: Harvesting the Montreal Protocol's Low-Hanging Fruit

The roots of the United States of America, like those of humanity, are equal parts collaboration and confrontation. Collaboration between British and colonial troops helped drive the French out of the Americas. Confrontation between British and colonial forces set the stage for collaboration between the colonies and the American Revolution.

Montreal, 1760

On September 8, 1760, a few years shy of 250 years ago, France surrendered Montreal to advancing colonial forces, essentially ending the French and Indian or Seven Year war. While a seeming success for the coalition of the willing -- British, Native American, and US troops -- the costs of the war's military operations left Britain heavily indebted, overextended, and in a position to demand too much of its American colonies. The colonies responded with the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the US Constitution. Adopted by the thirteen collaborating US colonies on September, 17, 1787, the Constitution, and the government of four million people it created, united as a new nation against a common threat to their peace and prosperity.

Montreal, 1987

Two hundred years later, on September 17, 1987, the United States' 250 million citizens celebrated the amended but enduring US Constitution. On the eve of this celebration, up in Montreal again, the emerging field of international environmental law saw a revolution of its own that has had a profound impact on global environmental solutions, as twenty-five nations came together to sign the Montreal Protocol ("MP").

Written to address concerns over growing holes in the ozone layer caused by the release of CFC's and HCFC's used in aerosols, air conditioning units, and other human inventions, the MP, and the collaborative efforts it has spawned, have become an international model for cooperation. Kofi Annan calls it, "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date."

According to Nobel Prize winning chemist Mario Molina (who won his award for his scientific work concerning ozone depletion) in a recent op-ed to the London Financial Times, "during its 20 years of operation, the Montreal protocol has become the world's best global environmental agreement, having phased out 95 per cent of ozone-depleting substances in developed countries and 50-75 per cent in developing countries. The US estimates that by 2165 these efforts to restore the ozone layer will prevent 6.3m deaths from skin cancer and produce $4,200bn in health benefits to society in that country alone. Those health benefits extend to all countries of the world, and to the ecosystem itself."

Molina notes that, "The ozone treaty has already done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the Kyoto protocol is expected to do in its initial commitment period, from 2008 to 2012. In the process, the Montreal protocol has delayed warming by up to 12 years. This delay may have kept the world from passing the 'tipping point' for abrupt and irreversible climate change -- a point that some of my colleagues calculate could be 10 years away."

So without the MP, we could have been looking at 2020 global warming scenarios today. Scary thought.

This historic Montreal meeting and signing also played an important role in laying the ground work for the 1992 Earth Conference in Rio -- a Conference that saw the birth of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change -- under which the now famous/infamous Kyoto Protocol came into being.

Montreal, 2007

In a short two weeks, the initial signatories will come together again in Montreal on the 20th Anniversary of the MP to look back on two decades of extraordinary results and to look ahead to a potentially significant impact on delaying global warming. A growing number of US cities, counties, districts, states, and regions urge the United States to join the Kyoto Protocol, and the potential of the MP has been largely ignored by the mainstream environmental movement.

Molina see the MP as still vital, with, "the vigour and dynamism of youth, along with the experience and wisdom that comes with 20 years of success."

At the recent G8 meetings, the US shows signs of willingness to lead. According to Durwood Zaelke, President for the Institute for Sustainable Governance, and Director of the International Network for Environmental Compliance & Enforcement Secretariat, "the US must follow through on their G8 commitment to accelerating the phase-out of HCFCs in a way that promotes energy efficiency and climate change benefits by leading the charge next month."

According to Zaelke, "this is low hanging fruit that can keep us from [the] tipping point....If MP Parties don't grab it, they will be passing the buck to the next in line -- and the next opportunity will not be as easy, nor as cheap."

Molina believes, "it is now a question of whether the treaty's leaders can persuade the rest of the world to act next month. In the light of the short time before we reach the planet's 'tipping point', they cannot afford to fail."

None of this is to say that Kyoto won't play a central role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. It already has, and it will, hopefully for years to come. But the largely overlooked meetings in Montreal in the next two weeks are a reminder that we need not wait on Kyoto to get started.

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