This September will mark the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an international agreement that set a schedule for freezing and then phasing out the production of CFCs (the 1987 treaty, which mandated halving CFC production in industrial countries by 1998, was subsequently revised; CFC production was ended in the United States by 1996). The Montreal Protocol is widely considered a milestone. Even President Reagan, no friend of environmental regulations, declared it a “monumental achievement” as he signed the treaty.
Two decades later, progress toward an international agreement on controlling greenhouse gases has reached a deadlock, and comparisons are inevitable. There are, of course, differences between CFCs and the gases, including carbon dioxide, that cause global warming. Most important, the energy production that releases carbon dioxide drives the economies of both rich and poor countries. What’s more, whereas CFCs were produced by a handful of large chemical companies, carbon dioxide emissions involve many different industries and applications. Curbing greenhouse gases will be far harder and require changes that are far more economically disruptive.
But there are also striking similarities between CFCs and greenhouse gases, and lessons to be learned from the Montreal Protocol–particularly how to get multiple countries, large international corporations, and regulators to agree on a control strategy. In his 1991 book, Ozone Diplomacy, Richard E. Benedick, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, health, and natural resources under President Reagan, described the compromises that led to the success of the Montreal Protocol, detailing the scientific and technological uncertainties and the political disputes that faced those negotiating it. He points out that many elements of his story, particularly the political fighting and the need to reach a consensus in the face of doubt, should be familiar to those attempting to reach an agreement on greenhouse gases. As Benedick, the chief U.S. negotiator on the Montreal Protocol, writes in the 1998 revised edition, “Especially to apologists of inaction on the climate front, the Montreal Protocol can be portrayed as either too simple or not replicable. But although it is obvious that the climate change issue is more complicated and difficult than that of the ozone layer, the differences are quantitative rather than qualitative.”
Indeed, in one important respect the effort to reduce greenhouse gases is fundamentally like the effort to reduce CFCs: in each case, those who want change must motivate industry, especially large corporations, to develop the technologies needed to accomplish it. One of the most notable achievements of the Montreal Protocol was that chemical companies quickly saw the market opportunities created by the agreement. By its account, DuPont, the Wilmington, DE-based chemical giant that in the mid-1980s made roughly half the CFCs produced in the United States, spent $500 million over the next few years to develop substitutes. By the early 1990s, DuPont and its industry rivals, which included some of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, had begun to supply CFC substitutes to refrigeration and air-conditioning manufacturers, and they’d launched massive construction projects to build additional capacity to produce these chemicals.
Again, the differences between CFCs and greenhouse gases are notable; the new compounds could, more or less, directly replace CFCs, but there are no easy substitutes for burning fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the phaseout of CFCs highlights one factor that’s crucial in order for industry to invest in the development of new technologies. By announcing a simple and unambiguous time frame for the end of CFC production, the Montreal Protocol allowed companies to rationally predict and develop markets for alternatives.