The Forgotten Protocols

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came back into the news on Monday (11 November), with reports[i] on a paper published in Nature Geoscience which finds that reductions in chlorinated fluorocarbon (CFC) emissions achieved under the Montreal Protocol have contributed to the lower rate of global warming since the 1990s. This is because CFCs – and other halogenated hydrocarbons covered by the protocol – are also greenhouse gases, socutting these emissions provides a double benefit for the environment.

According to the Commonwealth Department of the Environment the Montreal Protocol ‘is widely considered as the most successful environment protection agreement’. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they? Them being a federally funded sheltered workshop for greenie policy wonks and all. Put that cynicical idea aside, however, and you’ll find that there are good reasons to hail the Montreal Protocol as a success. I’ll restrict myself to two:

  • First up, the Montreal Protocol is the first international environmental treaty to achieve universal ratification. That’s merely a political success but it does demonstrate that it’s possible to get at least universal lip service to international action to deal with international environmental problems;
  • According to NASA’s Ozone Watch, the Antarctic Ozone hole reached its largest extent  on 24 September 2006 – it’s now a lot smaller, so there was enough genuine commitment on the part of signatories to make the protocol work.

The Montreal Protocol isn’t the only international protocol on the environment that has been a success: the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution has been equally successful in dealing with the problem of acid rain. It’s worth remembering these lessons of recent history in the current political climate where it seems so many are advocating, as their bottom line on dealing with climate change, that the responsible position for Australia to take is ‘We won’t ‘til you do and so there’.


[i] Such as this one from National Geographic and locally, this one from The Australian.

About Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)

Gummo Trotsky is the on-line persona of Paul Bamford. Paul recently placed his intellect at risk of finally becoming productive by enrolling in a Lemonade, Lime & Bitters degree via distance education. He also plays the piano but Keith Jarrett he ain't.
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23 Responses to The Forgotten Protocols

  1. conrad says:

    The reason the ozone depletion treaty worked so well is because it is easy to substitute things for most ozone depleting substances, and the extra cost of this is almost zero in things where it gets substituted (and is easily passed on to the consumer). The effect of the substitution, for example, was utterly insignificant compared to the speed at which all of these consumer products got massively cheaper thanks to China etc. It also avoided getting politicized as a communist conspiracy theory (or whatever), probably because dumb rich mainly English speaking white males who like to think they’re smart by pretending to understand science they failed in year 10 and statistical physics they never learned (sorry, was just watching some trash on this) are a group most likely to be fried first thanks to lack of ozone.

    The other thing that’s worth noting is how long it took for anyone to do anything. People knew and were concerned about this in the 70s, but the protocol took 15 more years to sign and then another 20 to start working. Ozone also appears to have a very short life cycle (as do other things like those that cause acid rain). So if you’re thinking about how this might apply to reducing carbon emissions and then how the carbon already up there might like to fall back down, it’s a whole different ball-game. Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I think the probability of some of sort of treaty across all meaningful countries that works is pretty low. If rich countries like Australia and the US won’t lift more than their little finger, then it’s hard to see why places like China would except out of self interest.

  2. Patrick says:

    I’m with Conrad. Apples and oranges.

    Except he forgot that you didn’t have the rank hypocrisy of so many climate campaigners.

    • derrida derider says:

      “the rank hypocrisy of so many climate campaigners”, eh Patrick? The trouble with your comment is I don’t know what you mean by “climate campaigners”.

      If, as I suspect, you mean people trying to do something about AGW, then I don’t know what you mean by hypocrisy. By all means criticise their political tactics, their disdain for Mr Murdoch, their failure to invite you to their parties, or whatever – but they are trying, liiterally, to save the planet.

      If you mean the climate delusionists – whose talking points would be seen for the self-interested wilful ignorance they mostly are if it were not for the Koch brothers and the like fundng “think tanks” to develop these talking points – well then, I’d have to agree with you.

      • Patrick says:

        I’m thinking of anyone who espouses the need for a massive cut in emissions without
        – wearing the hairshirt themselves;
        – accepting that this cannot be at the cost of substantially lower standards of living; and
        – accepting that this must not be at the cost of substantially lower growth in GDP per capita in poor countries.

        Which includes the last comment I pretty much every heard on climate change except from a few friends of mine who are pretty damn low-carbon.

        For my money, if you are trying to save the planet and your recipe is X, but your recipe specifically is impose X on the world but I’m not so keen on X myself, well I think that is hypocrisy. Maybe I’m thinking through it ideologically and not clearly, maybe you are too?

  3. Gummo Trotsky says:

    …[it’s] worth noting is how long it took for anyone to do anything. People knew and were concerned about this in the 70s, but the protocol took 15 more years to sign and then another 20 to start working.

    True. It’s also worth noting that the political debate over the scientific evidence that CFCs were ozone depleting followed a course very similar to the debate over dealing with AGW. The same is true for acid rain. While we might look back and realise that the costs of replacing CFCs and high sulphur coal turned out to be not so heavy there were some major concerns in advance of the adoption of both conventions I’ve discussed. In the case of Montreal, the big issue was how to maintain the fresh food supply chain of advanced industrialised countries without CFC refrigerants. Would we cop working in offices without air-conditioning to preserve the ozone layer. Etc.

    I’m with Conrad. Apples and oranges.

    I doubt that Conrad is with you. ‘Apples and oranges’ is a silly idiom – there are plenty of points on which it’s valid to compare the two – they’re both arboreal fruits for a start. Try giving your anterior cingulate nucleus a bit more exercise next time you comment.

    • Patrick says:

      I thought your fundamental premise was similarity. I’m not suggesting that they are utterly unrelated, just they they aren’t sufficiently similar to support the conclusion you seem to wish to. But I didn’t get that across clearly enough?

    • conrad says:

      I don’t think the debate did follow a very similar course (indeed, I guess we won’t know the real answer to this until the future pans out). If I remember correctly (and I was pretty young at the time so could be wrong!), I think the push against the ozone-depleting substances was pretty mild, especially once obvious alternatives became cheap, and the acid rain problems were even simpler because they were affecting places in Euroland that don’t seem so susceptible to crackpotism and were far more environmentally aware (i.e., Germany and its forests).

      If I compare that to now, we have a legion of crackpots that have really gained serious traction, and now people in many places won’t even admit humans are at least in part responsible for global warming (40% of Australians according to a recent CSIRO survey, including the majority of those who voted in the current government — the US and UK figures are similar). So if you can’t even get passed this it’s hard to see how you can even get to second base (i.e., what to do about it and whether and when people want to pay comparatively large amounts if they do want to do something about it).

      I guess on the alternative side, as far as I’m aware, most of the major Euroland countries are not so influenced by crackpotism, and curiously nor are the Chinese (although this seems harder to tell) nor their government. Whether they want to do something about it versus just believe it is happening, however, is an entirely different story.

      • Gummo Trotsky says:

        If I remember correctly (and I was pretty young at the time so could be wrong!), I think the push against the ozone-depleting substances was pretty mild

        That raises a point that I was going to discuss in the abandoned, more extended version of this post – generational change as a factor in shaping the debate over AGW. No one under 25 will have any personal recollection of the scientific and political debates over CFCs so the debates on AGW will look unprecedented.

        Based on my own untrustworthy recall of that era – a time when most of my thinking about life was done below the waist – the chemical reaction between freon (a CFC refrigerant and aerosol propellant) and ozone was first discovered in laboratory studies. The likelihood that freon released into the atmosphere could diffuse upward to the ozone layer was mooted but it took the actual detection of freon in the ozone layer to get the pollies moving on the issue. It wasn’t until studies revealed a growing hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica that things really got moving.

        It’s only personal recollection speaking but I think that if you examine the history, you’ll find that objections to action on ozone depletion were raised in the lead up to Montreal that mirror objections that have been raised to action on climate change. Those objections were overcome.

        It’s taken a while for Montreal to work, but work it has. Now the risk in Australia is that at some stage the Federal Government, looking for ways to cut government expenditure and ‘green tape’ might take a look at our commitments under Montreal, decide that the convention has done its work and start making cuts. But that’s going a bit too far beyond the immediate topic.

        • conrad says:

          There are treaties which have been more or less successful within the lifespans of younger people, who, incidentally, are generally not the ones in the crackpot category (Catallaxy commentators excepted) — most tend to be older white guys that people don’t care about that want to feel special and smart as far as I can tell (e.g., failed science people from other domains) as well as people with obvious vested interests (e.g., Clive Palmer).

          For examples, things like nuclear arsenals have been reduced a lot in the last few decades, and proliferation to new countries has been only a trickle. We actually care about this enough to put it on TV now and then when someone scary wants them. Your example about ozone is certainly relevant even now. You can also travel around the world far more easily than 20 years ago when you’d get annoying visa conditions for many places, and you can’t buy things like ivory easily from the duty-free store. There are treaties stopping the exploitation of Antarctica too.

          Of course, on the failed list, most of the world’s fisheries are more or less wrecked because most governments are too stupid to co-operate on marine parks or fishing limits and too weak to even say no to a few vested interests ( like our current government). This is despite pretty good data showing over time you get more yields managing this well and not less (which wouldn’t be hard in most places where the yields are tiny now. I think there are now about 16 fish left in the Mediteranean sea, for example). I won’t go on with this list, as I’m sure you could populate it with many other things!

        • Gummo Trotsky says:

          …most tend to be older white guys that people don’t care about that want to feel special and smart as far as I can tell

          Often with Arts/Law degrees obtained at government expense followed by self-directed (but employer funded) post-graduate study in the art of writing tickets on yourself. I’m embarrassed to have gone to Uni ‘with’ some of them. Really embarrassed about those I scraped acquaintance with in the pub.

          I won’t go on with this list, as I’m sure you could populate it with many other things!

          Thanks for that. Too glum to contemplate all the failures (though your comment did remind me of the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery).

          Someone could probably produce a fat scholarly book on international treaties and why they succeed or fail. Someone probably has already.

  4. Patrick says:

    I thought your fundamental premise was similarity. I’m not suggesting that they are utterly unrelated, just they they aren’t sufficiently similar to support the conclusion you seem to wish to. But I didn’t get that across clearly enough?

    • Gummo Trotsky says:

      Must admit that my amygdala kicked in a bit at the end of my response to your first comment.

      I guess the basic similarity of previous action on global environmental issues is an underlying premise of this post. Mostly though, it was written as a pick-me-up. At the moment I’d much rather look to past successes in international action on environmental problems and hope that they can somehow be repeated than dwell on the glum prospect of at least three years of living under a government with a ‘we won’t even if you do and so there’ attitude.

      • Patrick says:

        Fair enough happens to all of us! But if I was you I’d invest your emotional energy in another cause for a decade or so ;)

  5. murph the surf. says:

    Are you criticising Deltoid Conrad?

    • conrad says:

      No, I really am thinking of the tragic almost retired academics who haven’t been able to gracefully take being average (or even over-average compared to often really smart people). You see them commonly in universities.

  6. rog says:

    I don’t throw rubbish out of the window of my car therefore I qualify to speak on pollution.

    It’s a silly analogy, what we are asking is that on a national level alternative sources of energy should be found and utilised. What does wearing a metaphorical hair shirt achieve apart from personal discomfort?

    • Patrick says:

      Well, rog, if you reverse your little bit of irony I think we can answer your question:
      I support the environment but I won’t stop throwing rubbish out the window until we make it a law….??

      • rog says:

        You’ve answered a question I did not ask.

        The is good, society ( if it exists) needs more forward thinking people.

        • Patrick says:

          Disagree. The world does need visionaries. But I’m far from sure that we need more, especially in current conditions. To my mind we need more people who think backwards, who believe in reversion to the mean, who accept human nature as a reality, who aspire for us asa society to bumble through better than our parents did.

    • conrad says:

      The metaphorical hair-shirt can apply at multiple levels. For example, seeing environmental stickers on fuel-guzzling 4wds just makes me cringe. Similarly, why can’t environmental conferences just be done electronically now? Do people really always need plane flights and so on to go to them?

      Across countries, it means that it is basically worthless for countries like the US and Australia that have massive per-capita carbon footprints to tell countries like China what to do.

  7. I used to be not trampis says:

    really interesting article Gummo

  8. I used to be not trampis says:

    wow I am not consigned to the spam bin alah Nick Rowe.

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