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What can climate action learn from the Montreal Protocol?

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By John Leo Algo

· 5 min read

At a time when the world is struggling to solve environmental crises left and right, there has been one course of action that seems to be on the right track.

Since the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, countries have been working together to implement the Montreal Protocol. This global treaty was formed to phase out ozone-destroying substances like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and avoid harmful effects such as UV radiation that could be damaging to human health, plant growth, and marine ecosystems.

Decades later, the ozone layer is healing slowly but surely. Per the UN report last January, around 99% of the banned chemicals have been phased out. If current trends continue, the ozone layer would recover back to 1980 values by 2040.

This agreement would also contribute to slowing down global warming through an amendment that requires phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). While intended as replacements for CFCs, they were discovered to be greenhouse gases, which cause global warming and climate change.

A successful HFC phasedown would reduce global warming by up to 0.5°C by 2100. This makes the Montreal Protocol critical to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, the global treaty for addressing the climate crisis. 

Since its adoption in 2015, the implementation of the Paris Agreement has been lackluster. Despite clear scientific consensus about limiting warming to 1.5°C and avoiding more extreme weather events and other impacts, GHGs continue to rise and are likely to continue doing so for years to come. 

What lessons can we learn from the Montreal Protocol, hailed as the most successful environmental agreement to date, to improve the implementation of the Paris Agreement?

Not the same 

It is vital to understand the nature of the pollutants being addressed by these two global treaties. While the Montreal Protocol focused on the likes of CFCs and HFCs, successfully implementing the Paris Agreement requires reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like coal and gas, the burning of which emits GHGs that cause the climate crisis.

Ozone-depleting substances were used in refrigerators, air-conditioners, fire extinguishers, and other products. In comparison, fossil fuels are much more embedded in economies worldwide, currently providing 80% of the world’s energy needs. 

Addressing both issues requires decreasing the usage of these substances and finding alternatives. At this point, substitutes for ozone-destroying chemicals are more readily available than those for fossil fuels and energy technologies. As a result, it has been more difficult to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels. 

It should be highlighted that the Montreal Protocol is structured differently from the Paris Agreement. The former focuses on addressing the pollution of ozone-depleting substances, with specific targets and timelines for phasing down and phasing out chemicals. The latter, on the other hand, lacks a clear pathway with a set of commitments for limiting warming to 1.5°C and reducing GHG emissions.

A key part of the Paris Agreement is allowing countries to self-determine their own pledges, most notably how much GHG emissions they want to reduce. While this is respectful of the fact that nations have different capacities, resources, and responsibilities in the context of the climate crisis, it has also made it difficult for negotiators to agree on a definitive strategy to tackle this issue. 

The slow progress is largely a reflection of how fossil fuels remain deeply integrated into national economies, with the unwillingness of many countries and leaders to transition away from them. The past 27 climate negotiations have also made clear the deep divide between developed and developing countries on many aspects of addressing the climate crisis, from finance to loss and damage.

Yet the same

Nonetheless, ending the era of fossil fuels is necessary for our survival; it is not optional. Yet much like fixing the ozone layer, it is expected that addressing the climate crisis would take decades, given the global scope and the severity of potential impacts. Delaying the implementation of solutions would only cause more harm to both the natural and human environments, as we have all learned in recent years.

Both the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement have provisions that allow for increasing ambition and enhancing targets, based on the most recent scientific findings. The former has been amended multiple times throughout its existence, the latest of which is the phasedown of HFCs. Meanwhile, the latter contains mechanisms for nations to update their national commitments for climate solutions every five years, albeit on a self-determining basis.

If the most recent climate negotiations in Egypt are any indication, the world is a long way off from sufficiently scaling up solutions. Delegates failed to enhance targets and commitments for reducing GHG emissions and providing enough finance to support programs of developing countries, despite strong evidence to support both. 

Yet the success of the Montreal Protocol provides living proof that properly implementing the Paris Agreement is still possible. Aside from a well-defined pathway with clear targets for reducing pollution, it would also take global cooperation, long-term political will, and a shift in the culture of climate governance at the multilateral and national levels to avoid the worst-case scenario due to the climate crisis.

Solving any problem starts with directly recognizing the root cause. World leaders may claim they know the issue of the climate crisis through words, but not many have shown to understand it through actions. 

If there was any time for history to repeat itself, it would be for our world to now replicate the successes of the Montreal Protocol.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John Leo Algo is the National Coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas, the Philippines's largest civil society network for climate action. He is also a member of the Youth Advisory Group for Environmental and Climate Justice, anchored in YECAP under agencies of the United Nations. He has been a climate and environment journalist since 2016.

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