The Secret Sauce that Saved the Ozone Layer — Part 1

February 8, 2021
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

Part 1: Learning the Recipe

Based on the forthcoming book, Cut Super Climate Pollutants, Now!, by Alan Miller, Durwood Zaelke, and Stephen O. Andersen

Diplomats, like chefs, have established recipes (they call them “protocols”) for negotiating and reaching agreements. In the case of climate change, a secret sauce from a largely unused recipe may be the missing ingredient needed to effectively address climate change.

More than 40 years ago, in 1987, a remarkably successful international agreement, the Montreal Protocol, was signed to protect the ozone layer that protects all of life on earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. Based on science barely a decade old and yet to be confirmed, developed countries joined by a few developing nations agreed to phase out chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. The chemicals, invented only a few decades earlier by a General Motors scientist, were seemingly wonders of the modern age — non-toxic or flammable, relatively low cost, and with a growing list of consumer and industrial applications. While still remembered as aerosol propellants (President Trump claimed his hairspray has never been the same), CFCs had a great many other uses including as refrigerants, solvents for computer and electronic products, foam blowers, and insulating materials. Many of these uses had no established substitutes at the time. The national leaders promoting the Montreal Protocol were also among the more unlikely, President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, neither known for their environmental sympathies.

The 1987 agreement, to reduce production and consumption of CFCs by 50 percent in a decade, was impressive but only the beginning. Three years later, in 1990, the Protocol was amended to require the complete phaseout of CFCs by 2000 and two additional chemicals endangering the ozone layer. Thereafter, the Protocol was amended four more times, each time expanding the list of restricted chemicals and/or accelerating the phaseout. The most recent agreement, the Kigali Amendment in 2016, expanded the scope of the Protocol to restrict hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, potent greenhouse gases originally introduced as substitutes for the ozone depleting compounds. The ozone protection agreement became a climate action treaty with more commitment to action than the climate convention.

Because of measures taken under the Montreal Protocol, emissions of ozone depleting substances have been dramatically reduced, their concentration in the atmosphere is steadily declining, and the ozone layer is expected to be fully healed near the middle of the 21st century. The EPA estimates that the Protocol will avoid 443 million cases of skin cancer, 2.3 million related deaths, and 63 million cases of cataracts for Americans born in the years 1890–2100, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in societal health benefits. The global benefits are orders of magnitude higher. Although not initially an objective of the Protocol, it turns out that the same CFCs that threatened the ozone layer were also potent greenhouse gases and their elimination has avoided about as much warming as from all the CO2 emissions to date.

What made the Montreal Protocol so successful? And are there lessons that might help with urgent need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases?

In a forthcoming book, Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!, Durwood Zaelke, Stephen Andersen and I describe five features of the Protocol’s implementation that had much to do with its success:

· Breaking the problem into pieces by type of business or products, e.g., refrigeration, pesticides;

· Creating working groups for each sector including experts from the affected industries committed to finding solutions,

· Creating a culture of independence so the experts can work without government or business interference,

· Mandating solutions the experts propose,

· And one more thing: make clear the problem to be solved at the outset.

Simple, right? Well, yes and no.

The ingredient most frequently included is establishing expert groups focused on specific industries and products, e.g., steel and cement. Such groups exist, although too often with the intent of slowing, rather than enabling changes in industry practice. I discuss some promising examples of existing working groups with the needed qualities in Part 2 of this blog.

Finding experts would seem to be simple but immediately raises issues. When it comes to changing technology and business practice, many of the most informed experts are in the affected industries. They understandably may come from companies with vested interest in established ways of doing things — and a resistance to changes that will require investment. Yet as Andersen and Zaelke describe in their book Industry Genius: Inventions and People Protecting the Climate and Fragile Ozone Layer, there are many industry experts with the “self-motivation that comes from personal concern for our Earth and its environment.” The trick is to find experts excited to be tasked with finding solutions and able to work without interference or direction from their employers. Turns out this can be done with some careful screening, especially if reinforced by . . .

A culture of independence and commitment to solutions. This is the secret ingredient critical to the recipe, and the most difficult to define. The Protocol was able to create panels that took pride in figuring out how to radically reduce, and ideally eliminate, use of the chemicals threatening the ozone layer. The recipe for success thus depends on good chefs as well as the right ingredients. The panel chairs were able to require technical credentials and to exclude known defenders of the status quo, a tribute to their judgment as well as to the authority they were given. The positive and creative approach that resulted was self-reinforcing, as participation in such influential processes became its own reward. In turn, their employers came to see the benefit of knowing they could invest in technology change that would be mandated and not dependent on market acceptance.

A pre-existing commitment to implement the solutions identified is also rarely included but can evolve over time if outcomes are rapidly endorsed and put into effect — a bit like adding salt after the dish is done.

Making clear the problem to be solved sounds obvious but differs from most environmental regulations, which are based on something like “best available technology economically achievable”. It’s like the difference between giving NASA engineers the assignment to put a man on the moon and directing NASA to get a man as close to the moon as possible. For climate change, the instruction needs to be “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level sufficient to avoid warming of more than 2­oC, ideally 1.5 oC — and do not fail.”

The recipe has been proven in the ozone kitchen and as noted at the outset already applied to a potent greenhouse gas, HFCs, by the 2016 Kigali Amendment. Adapting the recipe to address other greenhouse gases is the focus of Part 2 of this blog.

Alan S. Miller is a consultant on climate finance and policy who has worked on global environmental issues for more than 40 years, including 16 years in the World Bank Group. This blog is the third in a series on practical solutions to climate change. The first, “The Case for a Climate Change Operation Warp Speed,” and the second, “The Climate Marathon Has Begun, Now Time for the Sprint,” are also available on Medium.

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