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World's Only Climate Treaty That Knows What the F**k It's Doing Turns 25

While Kyoto has become infamous for its modest record of squabbling at the edges of climate change, the Montreal Protocol has quietly solved five to ten times more of the climate problem than little brother.
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Last week, to relatively little fanfare in the U.S. at least, the Montreal Protocol -- the only climate treaty that seems to know what the f***k it is doing -- turned 25.

Now the title of this blog may sound familiar to some -- The Onion used a similar title when it ran a tongue-in-cheek story about Steve Jobs's death noting that "Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas -- attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen." Much the same could be said for the Montreal Protocol. It knows how to execute its ideas.

This young adult of a treaty was born two years into Ronald Reagan's second term. For more details on its birth and delivery, as well as a hopeful take on its future, see a great analysis by NRDC's David Doniger. And while most readers won't remember the treaty opening for signatures, most all of us over 30 remember one month later -- when an 18 month old baby was saved from a well in Midland, TX on a Friday and the Dow shaved off 22 percent in one day the following Black Monday. The 40-year-olds who pushed the treaty through are retiring while the college students who saw it ratified have kids in high school. It has been a long time.

And maybe that historic distance is why the Montreal Protocol's 15-year-old younger sibling, the Kyoto Protocol, has stolen headlines in recent history -- Prince Harry's state of undress versus Prince William's sterling image, if you will. While the Kyoto Protocol has become infamous for its modest record of squabbling at the edges of climate change, mired in a swamp of blame, politics, and finger pointing, the Montreal Protocol has quietly solved five to ten times more of the climate problem than little brother.

And if a group of nations, including the U.S., can succeed in bringing India and China to the bargaining table, big brother could just be getting started.

As a recent International Herald Tribune article points out, the Montreal Protocol's record is hard to argue with. To date, it has phased out nearly 100 chemicals that both destroy the ozone layer and warm the world and has phased them out by 98 percent -- putting the ozone layer on the way to recovery by 2065. Measured in human terms, phasing out these chemicals will save more than 6 million lives and $4 trillion in health care costs in the U.S. alone by 2065. Globally, the phase out will prevent more than 20 million cases of cancer and 130 million cases of cataracts.

Perhaps even more important, on its 25th birthday, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has a lot to teach us about how to succeed on climate where current efforts have failed. The treaty:
• Started modestly -- learning by doing, gaining confidence and continually strengthening to more.
• Instituted a successful "common but differentiated responsibilities" scheme under which developed countries started their phase-outs first, with developing countries getting a grace period of up to ten years.
• Provides for a dedicated funding mechanism to pay the full, agreed incremental costs to developing countries to shifting to safer substitutes, establishing 147 National Ozone Units in those countries, and training local experts on how to phase out chemicals.

By working collaboratively towards a global goal, the treaty has helped to create and connect the complex network of institutions necessary to take on even the most daunting challenges. As a result, the Montreal Protocol has gained universal UN membership, with every Party doing its share to protect the ozone layer and the climate.

Today a coalition of developing and developed countries, led by the Federated State of Micronesia, are proposing to amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs are factory-made super greenhouse gases used in air conditioning, refrigeration, and insulating foams. Due to the growing demand for air conditioning in a warming world and to the ongoing phase-out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons under the Montreal Protocol, HFCs are the fastest growing climate pollutants in many countries, growing at 10 to 15 percent globally per year.

"We have an opportunity today to get rid of high global warming HFCs through the Montreal Protocol and eliminate the equivalent of another 100 billion tonnes of CO2 by 2050," stated Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. "That's 8 percent of the mitigation that we need to have a fighting chance of staying below the critical 2°C guardrail for catastrophic climate impacts."

"The beauty of doing it through the Montreal Protocol," added Zaelke, "is that we know it will work because it has already worked for nearly 100 similar chemicals."

Quickly addressing HFCs along with other short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone can cut the rate of warming in the critically vulnerable Arctic by two-thirds and the rate of global warming by half for the next 30 to 60 years.

And as we are learning on a daily basis, dramatic climate driven changes are already occurring in our environment -- Arctic sea ice at a new record low after having lost enough sea ice to cover the area of France, considered a tipping point in the climate system, allowing more heat to be absorbed by dark ocean waters, and further heating the atmosphere, driving further sea ice and permafrost loss.

Without fast action to limit this accelerating growth, the climate warming caused by HFCs could equal nearly 20 percent of the warming caused by CO2 by 2050. Put in another way, uncontrolled HFC growth would cancel the entire benefit of mitigating CO2 to 450 parts per million in the atmosphere, the concentration associated with the 2°C guardrail. Because HFCs remain in the atmosphere for only a short time -- an average of 15 years compared to CO2, a quarter of which remains for thousands of years -- reducing HFCs produces fast climate protection.

This realization only underscores how it important it is to learn the lessons of the Montreal Protocol, and use them to take further fast-action to address climate change.

"Bottom line", according to Zaelke "is that phasing down HFCs through the Montreal Protocol may be the biggest, fastest, and cheapest piece of climate mitigation available to the world in these critical next few years."

As we celebrate the birthday of this incredible environmental treaty we should recognize that truly celebrating its successes means having it continue to do what it has been doing so well for the past 25 years.

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