WASHINGTON — With energy legislation shelved
in the United States and little hope for a global
climate change agreement this year, some policy experts
are proposing a novel approach to curbing global
warming: including greenhouse gases under an existing
and highly successful international treaty ratified
more than 20 years ago.
The treaty, the Montreal Protocol, was adopted
in 1987 for a completely different purpose, to
eliminate aerosols and other chemicals that were
blowing a hole in the Earth’s protective
But as the signers of the protocol convened the
22nd annual meeting in Bangkok on Monday, negotiators
are considering a proposed expansion in the ozone
treaty to phase out the production and use of the
industrial chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons
or HFCs The chemicals have thousands of times the
global warming potential of carbon dioxide, the
most prevalent greenhouse gas.
HFCs are used as refrigerants in air-conditioners
and cooling systems. They are manufactured mostly
in China and India, but appliances containing the
substance are in use in every corner of the world.
HFCs replaced even more dangerous ozone-depleting
chemicals known as HCFCs, themselves a substitute
for the chlorofluorocarbons that were the first
big target of the Montreal process.
“Eliminating HFCs under the Montreal Protocol
is the single biggest chunk of climate protection
we can get in the next few years,” said Durwood
Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance
and Sustainable Development, a nongovernment organization
based in Washington. He noted that the ozone protection
effort had begun under former President Ronald
Reagan and continues to enjoy bipartisan support.
The United States has thrown its support behind
the proposal and negotiators said there was a strong
current of support for the move at the meeting
on Monday. All the signatories to the Montreal
Protocol would have to agree to the expansion,
but no further approval from Congress would be
needed. So far, there has been no Congressional
or industry opposition to the idea.
But the plan is not expected to be adopted this
year. Large developing countries, including China,
India and Brazil, object that the timetable is
too rapid and that payments for eliminating the
refrigerant are not high enough.
One advantage to using the Montreal protocol as
a vehicle, supporters say, is that negotiations
over the treaty have been utterly unlike the contentious
United Nations climate talks that foundered in
Copenhagen last year. Negotiators say that without
legislative action on curbing greenhouse gases
by the United States, little progress will be made
when countries gather in Cancún, Mexico,
late this month for another round of climate talks.
In a post-election news conference, President
Obama noted that it was doubtful that Congress
would do anything to address global warming “this
year or next year or the year after.”
Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Montreal treaty
has been signed by all nations. They conduct their
business with little drama and with broad scientific
and technical input from governments and industry.
The financing mechanisms, while occasionally contentious,
are generally quickly resolved and seen as equitable.
The ozone treaty was unanimously ratified in 1988
by the United States Senate, which a decade later
unanimously voted against adopting the Kyoto Protocol
to address climate change. Montreal’s pollution
reduction targets are mandatory, universally accepted
and readily measurable. None of that is true of
the climate process.
The Montreal Protocol has phased out nearly 97
percent of 100 ozone-depleting chemicals, some
of which are also potent climate-altering gases.
The net effect has been the elimination of the
equivalent of more than 200 billion metric tons
of global-warming gases, five years’ worth
of total global emissions, far more than has been
accomplished by the Kyoto process.
It has been, according to the former United Nations
secretary general Kofi Annan, “perhaps the
most successful international agreement to date.”
The proposal to eliminate HFCs was advanced several
years ago by the tiny island nation of Micronesia,
one of the places on Earth most vulnerable to sea-level
rise and other global warming effects.
The United States quickly signed on. Along with
Mexico and Canada, the Obama administration has
proposed a rapid series of steps to reduce HFC
production, with rich countries meeting a faster
timetable than developing nations and helping to
pay the poorer countries to find substitutes. But
the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that
adopting the HFC proposal could eliminate the equivalent
of 88 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by
2050, and slow global warming by a decade.
Daniel A. Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary
of state for environment and the nation’s
chief Montreal Protocol negotiator, said that it
might take several years to persuade the ozone
treaty countries to back the plan.
In addition to pace and cost issues, some countries
say that HFCs have little impact on the ozone layer
and thus should be handled under the United Nations
climate change talks. Mr. Reifsnyder dismissed
that as a legalistic argument and said that the
ozone treaty could and should be used to achieve
broader environmental objectives.
“What we’ve found is that the Montreal
Protocol has been a very effective instrument for
addressing global environmental problems,” Mr.
Reifsnyder said in an interview. “It was
created to deal with the ozone layer, but it also
has tremendous ability to solve the climate problem
if people are willing to use it that way.”
Molina, the Mexican scientist who shared the
Nobel Prize in chemistry for his groundbreaking
in identifying the role of chlorofluorocarbon gases
in the breach of the stratospheric ozone layer,
said that it might take two or three years for
to see the virtues of the HFC reduction. “My
hope is that everybody will agree with this proposal
from the United States and Mexico
and a few other countries because the Montreal
Protocol has been so successful at controlling
these industrial chemicals,” he said in an
interview from his institute in Mexico City.
Dr. Molina said that extending the protocol to
include HFCs could reduce the threat of climate
change by several times what the Kyoto Protocol
proposes. He noted that the climate treaty had
fallen far short of its goals, and that there was
no agreement on what should replace it when its
major provisions expired in 2012.
“We understand it’s a stretch to use
an international agreement designed for another
purpose,” he said. “But dealing with
these chemicals and using this treaty to protect
the planet makes a lot of sense.”