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Saving the ozone layer: why the Montreal Protocol worked

The Montreal Protocol negotiators should get a lot of credit for developing such a flexible treaty. hhesterr/Flickr

SAVING THE OZONE: It might not seem so long ago that the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica had us in a frenzy over CFCs in hairsprays and insecticides. In fact, on September 16 2012, it will be 25 years since the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed. To mark this occasion, The Conversation is running a series of articles exploring various aspects of the Montreal Protocol – dubbed “the world’s most successful environmental agreement”. The work is not over, but 25 years of success is something to celebrate.

The Montreal Protocol is one of the most successful and effective environmental treaties ever negotiated and implemented. No single factor led to its success. But if an overarching reason is needed, look no further than the unprecedented level of cooperation and commitment shown by the international community.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer aimed to ban the global production and use of ozone-damaging chemicals including CFCs, HCFCs and halon. From the start, negotiation relied heavily on leadership and innovative approaches. Much negotiation was held in small, informal groups. This enabled a genuine exchange of views and the opportunity to take some issues on trust, such as the subsequent development of the Multilateral Fund. The people negotiating the treaty also included scientists, which lent credibility.

The science was not definite at the time, so it was a credit to the negotiators that they developed a highly flexible instrument which could increase or decrease controls as the science became clearer. It was only after the initial framework was negotiated that the science became firmer: early conclusions about the extent of ozone depletion turned out to be significantly under-estimated.

This flexibility meant the protocol could be amended to include stricter controls: more ozone-depleting substances added to the control list and total phase-out, rather than partial phase-out, called for. Starting out modestly also encouraged a greater confidence in the process.

One element that encouraged countries to ratify the Montreal Protocol was the trade provisions. These limited signatories to trade only with other signatories. Once the main producing countries signed up, it was only a matter of time before all countries had to sign up or risk not having access to increasingly limited supplies of CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances (ODS).

During the protocol’s negotiation, principles now routinely applied to the development of international agreements were first given a voice. Chief among these was the idea of taking action when the science was not yet conclusive. This forms the basis of the “precautionary principle”, later enshrined in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration. And the concept of common, but differentiated, responsibility took root in the Montreal Protocol when developing countries were given longer to phase-out ODS.

The implementation of the Montreal Protocol has been highly successful for a number of reasons. The chemicals and sectors (refrigeration, primarily) involved are clearly articulated. This let governments prioritise the main sectors early.

The Montreal Protocol also provided a stable framework that allowed industry to plan long-term research and innovation. It was a happy coincidence that there were benefits for industry of moving away from ODS. CFCs were old technology and well out of patent. Transitioning to newer, reasonably priced formulations with lower- or no-ozone depleting potential benefited the environment and industry.

To their credit, chemicals companies have kept innovating. They are now producing chemicals with no ozone depleting potential and with lower global warming potential as well, for use in the refrigeration and air conditioning sectors.

Another feature of the protocol has been the expert, independent Technology and Economic Assessment Panel (and its predecessors). These have helped signatories reach solid and timely decisions on often-complex matters. They have given countries confidence to start their transition.

The Multilateral Fund has been another reason for the protocol’s success. It provides incremental funding for developing countries to help them meet their compliance targets. Significantly, it has also provided institutional support. This helps countries build capacity within their governments to implement phase-out activities and establish regional networks so they can share experiences and learn from each other.

A final reason for the protocol’s successful implementation has been its compliance procedure. This was designed from the outset as a non-punitive procedure. It prioritised helping wayward countries back into compliance. Developing countries work with a UN agency to prepare an action plan to get themselves back into compliance. If necessary, resources from the Multilateral Fund are available for some short-term projects. It is telling that all 142 developing countries were able to meet the 100% phase-out mark for CFCs, halons and other ODS in 2010.

Australian government and industry’s shared commitment to protecting the ozone layer has been pivotal in our success at meeting our protocol obligations. Australia, and the ozone layer, have also benefited from the dedication and expertise of many individuals from our scientific and technical organisations, industry and from government.

The Montreal Protocol is a remarkable instrument. It broke new ground in its negotiation and in its construction. It is ratified or accepted by all 197 UN member states, a world first for any treaty and highlighting the strong global commitment to this treaty.

Most importantly it is doing its job well. The ozone layer is expected to return to 1980 levels between 2045 and 2060 as long as all countries continue to meet their obligations and phase out the last ozone-depleting substances in the next few years.

Phasing out ozone-depleting substances has also benefited the environment more broadly, as many ozone-depleting substances also have high global warming potential. It is a credit to governments, industry, environment groups, science and technical experts that such an instrument is even in existence and doing such a great job.

Tomorrow, in part two of the series, we’ll look at why the Antarctic ozone hole formed.

This article was co-authored by Annie Gabriel, who works for the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities on ozone protection policy. She has a BA from the ANU and a Graduate Certificate in Public Policy from Flinders University.

Read more on the Montreal Protocol’s 25th anniversary.

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