The Montreal Protocol: A Model for Future Multilateral Environmental Agreements


Evan Brander

The Doha Climate Change Conference of November and December 2012 was widely considered a failure. The conference drafted an agreement to extend the Kyoto protocol from 2012 to 2020. However, only a limited number of countries representing 15% of global carbon emissions made commitments under the new plan. Major emitters like Russia and Japan failed to make new commitments for the second phase of Kyoto, developing countries like China, India and Brazil are exempt from reducing emissions under Kyoto, the U.S. never ratified the Protocol, and Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2011. Recent commentary on climate change mitigation has been characterized by general despair that no multilateral agreement is likely to be reached.

In this environment of pessimism, it is important to remember past environmental successes, when the challenges of negotiating at the international level were overcome and meaningful change was accomplished. The Montreal Protocol was an example of a successful multilateral environmental agreement that included all of the world’s major developed countries and many developing nations, including major emitters like China and India. The Protocol was successful in dramatically reducing emissions of a chemical that was harmful to the earth’s atmosphere. Lessons can be taken from the successes of the Montreal Protocol and applied to current efforts to reach an effective multilateral agreement on combating climate change.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed in September of 1987 to protect the earth’s atmosphere from the harmful effects of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions. Many obstacles stood in the way of making the Montreal Protocol successful. There were conflicting interests between industry, environmental groups and governments. Chemical emissions were difficult to monitor and their effects on the atmosphere were invisible and not well understood. The development of a successful institution to protect the earth’s atmosphere depended on unanimous global agreement to reduce CFC emissions.

In December of 1986, negotiations began on the Montreal Protocol, the world’s first truly global environmental treaty. Negotiations involved diplomats, scientists, environmental interest groups and representatives from chemical production industries. Despite initial opposition, chemical industries came to support the Protocol after DuPont, the largest producer of CFCs in the world, announced that it would phase out CFCs and halons by 2000. With this announcement, the rest of the chemical industry followed in phasing out CFCs. The end of opposition from the private sector significantly helped the negotiating process. After nine months of negotiations, a draft of the Protocol was written. Signatories agreed to cut production of CFCs in half by 1999.

When new evidence emerged to suggest that the impact of CFCs and other substances on the atmosphere was even more devastating than originally believed, a new plan was developed to phase the production of CFCs, halons and other harmful chemicals completely. The member nations also laid out plans for the creation of a Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol was created to help developing countries meet harmful chemical reduction targets. It created an incentive for developing nations to join the Protocol and follow through on emission reduction measures. The developed nation signatories of the Protocol endowed the Fund and three UN agencies and the World Bank oversaw it. The Fund provided capital for projects in developing countries that would help them transition away from CFC through the use of technologies and environmentally sound practices. Developing nations were also given an extended timeline for meeting CFC reduction targets. Because of the Multilateral Fund and the extended timeline, many developing countries ratified the Montreal Protocol and complied with its targets. The Multilateral Fund was seen as the key factor in China’s decision to sign onto the Protocol. As the world’s largest CFC emitter, any multilateral agreement that excluded China would have been ineffective. Since it was originally drafted, 196 countries have signed the Montreal Protocol.

Though the Montreal Protocol largely succeeded in reducing CFC production and use, it was criticized on a number of grounds. Following the ban on the production of CFCs, halons and other chemicals, a significant black market for these chemicals developed. The Montreal Protocol has been criticized for acting too slowly even after scientists knew how damaging CFCs were to the ozone layer.

Before assessing the lessons that can be taken from the Montreal Protocol and applied to current negotiations on a climate change agreement, it must be acknowledged that the contexts surrounding banning CFCs and mitigating climate change are very different. During the late 1980s, there was a scientific consensus on the harmful effects of CFCs, with no influential dissenting opinions. Public awareness of the issue was high and support for the Montreal Protocol was strong. The harmful chemicals that were banned were used in a relatively small number of technologies and each had substitutes that could be used instead.

The climate change debate does not have any of these factors working in its favour. In contrast, a vast number of technologies produce carbon dioxide emissions, strong dissenting scientific voices have been able to greatly influence the debate and the current economic environment has kept climate change off the political agenda.

Despite large differences between the debates, some of the factors leading to the success of the Montreal Protocol can be applied to a multilateral agreement on climate change.

A large reason for the success of the Montreal Protocol was its involvement of developing countries, which were given financial assistance to comply with the Protocol and faced a less strict abatement schedule. At the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, developed country members of the Copenhagen Accord agreed to create a $100 billion fund to finance emissions mitigation projects in the developing world. Since the Green Climate Fund was created, it has run into significant stumbling blocks that have meant that the future effectiveness of the fund is unsure. In order to encourage major developing nations to make strong commitments to a multilateral climate accord, the governance of the Green Climate Fund must be improved. Developing nations should be given a longer timeline to mitigate emissions but must agree to significantly reduce emissions if they receive assistance from the fund.

The Montreal Protocol was framed as a straightforward, achievable goal. Instead of planning to save the entire global atmosphere, the Protocol sought to ban a few harmful chemicals. The problem of combating global climate change is an immense issue, affecting the world’s entire population and involving a vast number of conflicting interests. By breaking the issue into a set of more manageable proposals, some progress might be made and end the current stagnation of progress. An international agreement to reduce aviation emissions or ground transport emissions or an extension of international agreements on energy production could be more fruitful than an extremely broad plan to reduce overall international emissions.

The Montreal Protocol was an example of a successful international framework that effectively solved a major global environmental problem. We must learn from past environmental successes and allow them to inform future plans to combat global climate change.

Evan Brander is a 2014 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He also holds a BA (Hons.) in History and Economics from Queen’s University. His interests include environmental policy and economic policy.




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