What international agreement produced 10 times the climate benefits of Kyoto and could produce several times more greenhouse gas reductions than any post-2012 climate agreement? The answer: the Montreal protocol, which Kofi Annan described as “perhaps the most successful international agreement to date”. Because a new climate agreement is unlikely to emerge in Copenhagen in December, it is time to look for possible interim alternative ideas in the Montreal protocol, which supporters call the best kept secret in the war against climate change.


To start, ozone negotiators under the protocol are quietly meeting this week in Port Ghalib, Egypt. On their agenda is a proposal that could help avoid climate tipping points by reducing the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), refrigerant chemicals introduced in 1987 as a replacement for ozone-depleting chloro-fluorocarbons (CFCs), but which, themselves, are thousands of times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.

The stakes are high: regulating HFCs would result in upwards of 100bn tonnes of carbon dioxide- equivalent in climate mitigation by 2050 and a decade delay in climate change. In the first five to seven years alone, we could achieve cuts of roughly 30 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide- equivalent by phasing-down HFCs in mobile air conditioning. This is a substantial sum when compared with the reduction of 5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent by 2012 under Kyoto or with the anticipated climate benefits of a post-2012 agreement.

Moreover, as noted at the onset, the treaty has already produced huge reductions in climate emissions – 135bn tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent from 1990 to 2010, according to a study conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Consequently, national delegations preparing for Copenhagen would do well to study what makes the Montreal protocol such an environmental success, including its universal coverage, its source approach and its flexibility to evolve to reflect our changing world.

First, universality. Because climate change is a global problem, any agreement must include meaningful participation of the big emitters – a political requirement that has been flagged by the US Senate. Unlike Kyoto or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the protocol offers universal coverage with mandatory targets for both developing and developed countries. Moreover, the character of the targets is the same – binding, clear and measurable – with schedules that allow for measurement of progress.

Second, the protocol’s designers focused on the sources of specific chemicals. It also allows a co-ordinated approach to investment and technical assistance that speeds up reductions at a lower economic cost. This type of strategy would also be effective in crafting a climate framework, because technologies and substitutes vary widely from one industry to another.

Third, though the Montreal protocol was negotiated to address stratosphere ozone depletion, it has been implemented with the co-benefit of greenhouse gas reduction clearly in mind. Similarly, it would assist in formulating and supporting climate policies to keep constantly in mind the co-benefit of energy security.

Finally, and most importantly, the Montreal protocol is flexible, despite the fact that all signatories face mandatory targets. This flexibility allows the protocol to evolve with developments in science, technology and economics, allowing for adjustments and amendments that toughen or relax phase-out schedules. A fully implemented global cap-and-trade system with well-understood offset rules would provide similar flexibility for climate change. Such a regime is probably not achievable by Copenhagen, however, and the Montreal protocol’s flexibility may provide a workable model for an interim climate agreement.

To ensure maximum flexibility, the protocol established the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel, which includes experts from governments, industry and academia. The Teap approves exemptions that allow countries to use chemicals after the date of their phase-out if adequate reasons can be provided as to why the substance is critical for the functioning of society or needed for health reasons. Such a mechanism in a climate framework could provide for mid-course corrections for any interim agreements that might be reached in Copenhagen.

One possible interim outcome from Copenhagen could be a number of separate understandings with respect to individual industrial sectors without an overall binding mid-term target subject to a comprehensive emissions trading regime. Such an approach that included separate agreements covering power generation, steel, cement, aluminum and forestry, for example, could help construct a carbon market just for those sectors. In any case, the international community should work now to strengthen the Montreal protocol in case there is a failure to produce an effective post-2012 agreement. The protocol, which has already bought us more time, can do so again through regulating HFCs, and can serve as our guidestar in the war against climate change.

C. Boyden Gray, a member of the Atlantic Council Board of Directors, is a former US ambassador to the European Union.  This essay was published by the Financial Times as “What Copenhagen can learn from the Montreal Protocol.”