Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Lessons of the Montreal Protocol

I remember sitting about 20 years ago in a conference room of the Assistant Attorney General for the Environment Division in the Justice Department.  As the Department's policy representative, I was listening to representatives of several CFC manufacturers who were trying to prevent US implementation of the Montreal Protocol.  They explained that it was simply infeasible for the CFC manufacturers to comply with the Montreal Protocol.  I am extremely glad that no one believed them:  since that time the US has effectively implemented the Protocol, even to the point of criminally prosecuting car repair shops that mishandled air conditioning refrigerants regulated under the Montreal Protocol. 

Science reports on a new study published in PNAS indicating that the Montreal protocol has limited the growth in global warming as well as helping repair the ozone layer.  Indeed, so far its beneficial effects in limiting global warming outstrip those of Kyoto.  That should really come as no surprise.  First of all, the Montreal Protocol has been fully implemented and in effect far longer.  Second, it regulated some of the most detrimental GHGs because of their effect on the ozone layer -- so essentially the Montreal Protocol picked some of the "low-hanging fruit" --an overworked, but accurate metaphor for the most easily accomplished changes. 

However, most importantly, the Montreal Protocol used an effective regulatory approach.  There is little doubt that the most effective regulatory device is a phased-in ban or stringent cap, particularly one that allows trading during the phase down, which in turn efficiently distributes the costs of phase down to the least cost avoiders.  [In this respect, a cap with marketable rights is far superior to a tax because we have real certainty about the environmental target that will be accomplished through the cap, whereas the amount of a tax to hit the target is guesswork, that may well require multiple adjustments, thus reducing regulatory certainty and industry willingness to commit R & D]. 

We've verified that theoretical observation with the real life successes of the CAA lead phase down as well as the acid rain program.  The key is a strict schedule for the phasedown and stringent targets.  It gives industry the regulatory certainty necessary to invest in necessary R & D -- and even if industry does not believe it is feasible to hit the target when the target is first established (as indeed the CFC manufacturers claimed at the time), industry is remarkably adept at finding ways to do seeming impossible tasks.   Indeed, that is the genius of free enterprise.

Obviously, Kyoto was intended to be the beginning of a phase-down of carbon emissions.  But it hasn't worked as well as it might have due to the constant uncertainty about post-2012 requirements. 

There is a lesson in this for the world's policymakers if they are willing to learn.  The tripe currently being circulated in policy circles about "maintaining flexibility in the face of improving or changing information" is just that -- tripe.  Regulatory certainty is essential to induce the magnitude of investment necessary to get us out of the carbon trap.  Sometimes we just have to say "no," provide a series of targets and firm deadlines, ease the pain and create flexibility in implementation through well-designed trading programs that first and foremost hit the targets, and use strong enforcement mechanisms to assure compliance.  Then, we can actually accomplish something.

Since reducing carbon emissions is something we really need to accomplish, we need to use the lessons of the past about how to effectively regulate, and refuse to listen to theoretical nonsense about optimal regulation.  We know how to do this.  We just need to do it.  Now.    


.Picture of a graph
So far, the CFC ban has prevented the release of far more greenhouse gases (green and blue lines) than have the CO2 reduction targets imposed by the Kyoto Protocol (red line). See full story from Science News below.


Dodging a Warming Bullet

By Phil Berardelli
ScienceNOW Daily News
5 March 2007


What's good for the ozone layer has been even better for Earth's climate. According to a new study, a 20-year-old ban on ozone-depleting chemicals has been extremely effective at curbing greenhouse gases as well. In fact, it has already had more impact than a fully implemented Kyoto Protocol would have accomplished, even though the protocol was specifically designed to target atmospheric warming. The findings, say the authors, emphasize the importance of ridding the planet of these powerful greenhouse substances.

Ratified by 169 countries since 1999, the Kyoto Protocol requires its signatories to set caps on carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Both gasses--commonly produced by fossil fuel burning and agriculture--have long been recognized as contributors to global warming because they trap heat in the upper atmosphere. But by focusing solely on this type of emissions, Kyoto has missed the most potent offenders, the researchers say.              

For example, says atmospheric scientist Guus Velders of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in Bilthoven, the class of compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) traps 5000 to 14,000 times more heat, pound for pound, than carbon dioxide, and 400 times more heat than methane. Policymakers, however, initially targeted these compounds not for their role in global warming but rather for their damage to the ozone layer. Just one CFC molecule can rip apart thousands of ozone molecules, exposing life on Earth to the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet radiation. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was ratified by 191 countries to curb CFC emissions from sources such as refrigeration, dry cleaning, and foam insulation. The strategy has been effective: The rise in atmospheric concentrations of CFCs has been arrested, and the ozone layer has begun to show signs of recovery, to the point where scientists predict it will heal completely sometime after 2050.

The real surprise, though, is the dramatic impact the reduction of CFCs has already had on global climate change. In a paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Velders and colleagues calculate that since 1987, gradually shutting down CFC emissions has removed the equivalent of about 11 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (or about 0.55 billion tons per year that the Montreal Protocol has been active). By comparison, even if the Kyoto Protocol had been fully ratified (the United States and Australia, among others, have not signed on) it would have removed only about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide thus far (or about 0.25 billion tons per year that the Kyoto Protocol has been active). So for CO2 emissions curbs to match the impact of the ban on ozone-depleting chemicals, they would have had to be over five times more restrictive.              

The calculations are "very straightforward," says Velders, and although the link between CFC removal and climate has not been quantified this precisely before, "now that it has, the impact seems obvious."

K. Madhava Sarma, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme's Ozone Secretariat, agrees. He thinks policymakers should act to curb emissions of some of the chemicals that have been used to replace CFCs. One group, hydrochlorofluorocarbons or HCFCs, is easier on the ozone layer, but its members are also powerful greenhouse gases. There are alternatives available to these chemicals "that are both ozone and climate safe," says Sarma, and he suggests that the Montreal signatories consider adopting "these alternatives instead of HCFCs wherever feasible." A third category, hydrofluorocarbons, are even worse atmospheric heat collectors than CFCs, but because they don't affect ozone, Sarma says, the Kyoto partners must address them.                     



Air Quality, Climate Change, Energy, Governance/Management, International, Law, Legislation, Physical Science, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances | Permalink

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» Thank heaven weve hadpractice from The Eco-Libertarian
This post at the Environmental Law Prof blog is from a couple of weeks ago, but I appreciate the way it emphasizes the most important lesson of the extremely effective Montreal Protocol to slash our ozone-depleting emissions of chlorofluorocarbons: The... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 28, 2007 8:36:09 PM