When it comes to the environment, we don’t often get to deliver good news, which is why, even when it’s three decades old, we cling on to it. In 1987, the countries of the world signed a binding international treaty, one which would become the most widely ratified treaty in human history. A global accord of such a scale could only have been reached upon a truly global matter – a drastic reduction in the emission of harmful gases.
In the era of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the United Nations reached a pinnacle in human teamwork by adopting the Montreal Protocol, gradually banning the production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Now, 29 years later, Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, could become the stage for yet another grandiose accomplishment.
Since Montreal, CFCs have indeed been phased out and the Antarctic ozone layer is now proven to be healing. In refrigeration and air conditioning – CFCs’ main industrial applications – the chemicals were replaced with hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Since HFCs contain no chlorine, they pose no harm to the ozone layer. Unfortunately, they have a global warming potential up to 9,100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
“Clearly, replacing coolants is much easier than replacing fossil fuel, and this is why the Montreal Protocol was binding and much easier to be agreed upon”
The 28th meeting of the Montreal Protocol’s 197 parties, set to commence today, is expected to amend the Protocol in order to curtail HFC production. Even though India is pressing for a slower phaseout, the mood is upbeat, and observers say another diplomatic feat is well within reach.
If HFC use is to be restrained and finally banned, the Kigali Amendment could spare us 0.5 degrees of warming by 2100 – a blessing for a planet struggling not to exceed the dangerous 2°C threshold. The irony is that the warmer the world becomes, the more we will need refrigeration and air conditioning. Luckily, science has discovered plenty of substitutes for HFCs, and new technologies will diffuse rapidly, as key patents may expire in a few years.
Clearly, replacing coolants is much easier than replacing fossil fuel, and this is why the Montreal Protocol (unlike the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement) was binding and much easier to be agreed upon. However, with 2016 setting record high temperature levels, good news of a far-sighted and ambitious deal in Kigali would be refreshing in every sense.
This was published in the October 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.