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A Stern Warning

Can such simplicity be duplicated in an international agreement to control greenhouse gases? Probably not, given the complexity of the task and the great diversity of industries and technologies that need to be part of the solution. But neither should the history of the Montreal Protocol be ignored.

DuPont and the other CFC producers were ultimately motivated by the prospect of a lucrative new market; given such an incentive, their chemists and chemical engineers rushed new technologies into production with unprecedented speed. While finding alternatives to burning fossil fuels is far more difficult, the business opportunities are also far larger. The market for low-carbon energy products will reach $500 billion by 2050, according to the Stern Review on the Economics of ­Climate Change, recently released by the British Treasury.

The effectiveness of any strategy on global warming will depend on how well it creates new markets. That much was learned from the Montreal Protocol. But perhaps the greatest lesson is also one of the simplest: when science shows us a looming environmental disaster, we need to act quickly and decisively, regardless of the economic or technical uncertainties.

David Rotman is the editor of Technology Review.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer
September 16, 1987

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