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Ever-evolving Montreal Protocol a model for environmental treaties

  • Since the Montreal Protocol was signed in 1987, countries have been phasing out most ozone-damaging chemicals, helping protect the Earth’s protective shield. In this exclusive Mongabay interview, Megumi Seki, Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Programme’s Ozone Secretariat, reviews the history and future of the landmark treaty.
  • The Montreal Protocol phase-down has also helped prevent further climate warming. But the HFCs — replacement gases employed by industry as refrigerants and for other uses — while not harmful to the ozone layer, have been found to be powerful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
  • In 2016, national delegates agreed on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which calls for cutting the production and use of HFCs by 80–85% by the late 2040s. The amendment entered into force at the start of 2019, with the goal of avoiding additional warming by up to 0.4°C (0.72 °F) by the end of the century.
  • The early steps of the Montreal Protocol, and its ongoing adjustments including the Kigali Amendment, provide vital clues as to how to effectively negotiate, implement, update, and succeed in moving forward with other future environmental treaties.

In the early 1970s, scientists first discovered that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), coolants used in refrigeration and foam production, had the potential to destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere, with devastating consequences. The ozone layer acts as a shield to protect life on Earth from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet radiation.

Then in 1985, accumulating scientific research and the first evidence of a widening ozone hole over Antarctica, galvanized the world’s nations. Their delegates came together in 1987 to create the Montreal Protocol, a binding international environmental treaty regulating the production and use of manufactured chemicals damaging to Earth’s ozone layer. Since then, nearly 200 countries have signed on and some 100 chemicals have been phased out or phased down.

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When scientists realized in 2016 that the latest generation of refrigerants, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), while safe for the ozone layer, were very powerful greenhouse gases, the UN parties added the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Under this agreement, which came into force in 2019, signatories will phase down the production and consumption of HFCs, creating the potential to avoid up to 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century.

“If we achieve that, then it will be a great contribution to protecting the climate,” says Megumi Seki, Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Programme’s Ozone Secretariat, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Seki’s work on ozone layer issues started in 1988, and she was one of the staff members of the Ozone Secretariat when it was formally established in 1989. Consequently, she has facilitated various changes and updates which the parties to the Montreal Protocol have introduced to the treaty in the last three decades.

Megumi Seki, Acting Executive Secretary of the UN Environment Programme’s Ozone Secretariat.

Mongabay: How has the Montreal Protocol treaty evolved over time?

Megumi Seki: The Montreal Protocol has continued to evolve, and we sometimes refer to this as the “start and strengthen” approach.

When the Montreal Protocol was first adopted, it dealt with only five CFCs and three halons. However, since the Montreal Protocol has a provision for periodic assessments on the science, on the environmental effects, and on the technology and economics of ozone layer depletion and protection, the parties have been strengthening the Montreal Protocol through adjustments and also amendments based on the findings in the assessments. So right now, the Montreal Protocol is controlling about 100 ozone depleting substances, plus 18 climate-warming HFCs.

Mongabay: What factors have made the treaty so successful?

Megumi Seki: There are several elements that have made the Montreal Protocol very successful, such as commitment of the parties and their political will, and the global partnership, including the partnerships between governments, industry, NGOs, and academia.

All these partnerships were of fundamental importance in making sure that everything moved in the right direction through concerted action. The Montreal Protocol and its mechanisms, institutions and provisions including the Multilateral Fund, recognition of special situations of developing countries, the assessment process, science-based policymaking, non-compliance procedure, and so on, are all important elements.

Of course, one key to success was the development and availability of greener and cleaner alternatives to ozone depleting substances [ODS] that were used, for example, as refrigerants, in aerosol sprays and in foams. The Montreal Protocol provided a stable framework that allowed industry to plan their research and innovation and ensured a smooth transition by society. There were benefits for industry in moving away from ODS gases, and the transition to alternatives benefited the environment and industry. If the alternatives didn’t exist, then it wouldn’t have worked. And, of course, universal ratification and full compliance by the parties were essential.

This series of images shows the Antarctic ozone hole on the day of its annual maximum depletion in 1979, 1987, 2006, and 2010, as measured by the ozone measuring instrument on the Aura satellite. Images courtesy NASA Ozone Hole Watch.

Mongabay: What role has the Multilateral Fund played in the Protocol’s success?

Megumi Seki: The Multilateral Fund was the first of its kind to be established for global environmental protection. It reflects a recognition of the differentiated responsibilities of the parties to implement a global environmental treaty. The developed countries contribute to the Multilateral Fund so that the Fund covers the incremental costs incurred by the developing countries in phasing-out ozone-depleting substances. The Fund and its implementing agencies support developing countries with their phase-out activities.

This is a global partnership that enabled the developing countries to meet their responsibilities, and they were equal partners in meeting their obligations and taking action towards a global goal. So, the Multilateral Fund is definitely a pillar of success of the Montreal Protocol.

Mongabay: It has been found that HFCs are powerful greenhouse gases. Why did the Montreal Protocol parties not recommend a complete phase out of HFCs in the Kigali Amendment?

Megumi Seki: It is a phase-down rather than a phase-out because there are some uses of HFCs where there are currently no alternatives available. For example, HFC-134a is used in metered dose inhalers, and there’s no effective-enough alternative for this use at this time. So, the parties can choose to continue to use HFC-134a because it is not going to be a complete phase-out.

It is a “basket” of HFCs that are being controlled under the Kigali [Agreement], so parties can choose which of the HFCs they want to reduce, so long as they stay within the control limits specified in the control measures. And parties may want to choose to reduce the high-global-warming-potential HFCs because the phase-down amounts and the control limits are calculated on the basis of the global-warming-potential weighted tons.

Meg Seki (far right) with Vincent Biruta of Rwanda, President of the Meetings of the Parties in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2016. Image by Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB.

Mongabay: Why has it been important to implement changes to the Montreal Protocol in stages?

Megumi Seki: It has been a step-by-step, not a cold-turkey approach. The Montreal Protocol has a provision for assessments of the latest information on the science, environmental effects, technology and economics of ozone layer depletion and protection, based on which parties can take informed decisions, including on strengthening of the control measures through adjustments and amendments.

Such assessments are carried out periodically by the three Assessment Panels of the Montreal Protocol in which the world’s renowned scientists and experts participate. Major assessments are carried out at least every four years, and progress and emerging issues are reported to the parties annually. Based on the evolving status and knowledge of ozone layer depletion and recovery, effects of the ozone depletion and climate change, and availability of alternatives, parties take decisions to strengthen the control measures and ensured transition to greener, more environmentally friendly — both climate-friendly and ozone-friendly — substitute chemicals and alternative technologies.

Mongabay: What will it take for the Kigali Amendment to be as successful as the original phase out of CFCs?

Megumi Seki: Success can be measured in different ways. For the Kigali Amendment to be successful, as successful as the Montreal Protocol itself — although the Kigali Amendment is, of course, part of the Montreal Protocol — one of the main elements is universal ratification which is a challenge in itself to achieve. If all the countries in the world join the Kigali Amendment, and they are 100% compliant, it will be successful in achieving the objective of an 80 to 85% phase-down of the HFCs by 2047. And if we achieve that, there is going to be significant contribution to mitigation of climate change.

But, before reaching the universal ratification, if the countries that have not ratified the Kigali Amendment take action to reduce HFCs in line with the requirements of the Kigali Amendment, it can still be successful in making the expected contribution to climate change mitigation while continuing to protect the ozone layer. [Editor’s note: As of the publication date of this story, the United States., China and India (leading HFC producers), have not ratified the Kigali Amendment, though the U.S. and China appear to be moving toward signing.]

Delegates from more than 200 countries gather at the annual Montreal Protocol meeting. The success of the landmark treaty offers lessons for future environmental agreements. Image by Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB.

Mongabay: Can increasing energy efficiency boost the possible success of the Kigali Amendment?

Megumi Seki: During the evolution of the Montreal Protocol, every time there is a design change in refrigeration and air-conditioning (RAC) equipment, energy efficiency of the equipment has improved. Phase-out of CFCs, and now the ongoing phase-out of HCFCs used as refrigerants, have resulted in significant energy efficiency improvements in the cooling sector over the years.

HFCs have replaced CFCs and HCFCs as refrigerants. Now that HFCs are to be phased down, there is an opportunity to enhance energy efficiency in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment again and that is going to contribute to climate change mitigation.

The Scientific Assessment Panel estimates that up to 0.4 degrees Celsius [0.72 degrees Fahrenheit] warming can be prevented by the year 2100 with HFC phasedown in accordance with the Kigali Amendment. If at the same time, energy efficiency improvements are made, the climate benefit could potentially double.

Banner Image: View of the dais during the 2016 High-Level Segment Ministerial Round Table ‘Towards an Agreement on the HFC Amendment under the Montreal Protocol. Image by Kiara Worth/IISD/ENB.

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