The Montreal Protocol

Elizabeth May

Tomorrow will be a great day in Montreal as the whole United Nations family gathers to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol. In September, 1987, Canada led the way in environmental diplomacy as we helped steer the debates to a successful conclusion. It wasn’t easy.

I was there as Senior Policy Advisor to the federal Minister of Environment. At one point, the talks broke down completely. I was running shuttle diplomacy on behalf of the Minister, between the head of the US EPA, who assured me he had no room to go back to the Reagan White House for more negotiating flexibility, and the Canadian delegation scientists and representatives from the European Union, who were not budging either. In the end, it was the New Zealand Minister of Environment who found a creative compromise.

It was so frightening. Knowing we were talking about controlling chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer, the layer of gases that protects all life on earth, while the negotiations centred on what amounted to market advantage and trade.

Success was huge. The Montreal Protocol was the first multilateral environmental agreement to keep developing nations and industrialized nations within the same treaty by providing different targets for each group. In fact, developing countries were allowed in the Montreal Protocol’s first phase to increase emissions, while industrialized countries were obliged to cut production and use of ozone depleting substances by 50%. Thereafter, increasingly strong science kept ramping up the legally binding targets.

We are not out of the woods yet, but the Montreal Protocol is working. Scientists now see the real prospect of the transition from a thinning ozone layer to one that repairs itself. This round of negotiations should move to eliminate the HCFCs, which while less dangerous than CFCs, are still ozone-depleters as well as dangerous chemicals like the pesticide methyl bromide. Thanks to the US pressure to keep this carcinogenic and ozone depleting tomato and strawberry pesticide in use, the planned phase-out keeps being postponed.

The architecture of the Montreal Protocol was the basis for the Kyoto Protocol. The decision to start with industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gases was not accidental. In fact, it was the only thing that has ever worked.

It worked for ozone-depleters largely because the manufacturers stopped fighting the inevitable and decided to be in favour of life on earth (For those who want fascinating environmental political reading, find the New Yorker series by Paul Brodeur about Depont’s early efforts to debunk the idea there was anything wrong with the ozone layer!) The Carbon Club has not yet moved from saboteur to responsible actor. With hand-maidens to Big Oil and Coal like Stephen Harper and George Bush, we are running out of time.

The link between the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols may explain the resistance of the Harper government to host this conference. In fact, it is likely that our pressure form the green Party stopped our government from a foolish decision: to refuse the UN offer to host the 20th anniversary conference.

On September 14, 2006, we noted the following in a news release:

"It is our information that the United Nations Environment Programme asked Canada to host the 20th Anniversary session of the world's most successful environmental agreement, and that the Harper government has replied, 'find someone else.' Is Prime Minister Harper against the Montreal Protocol, or does he simply not want to draw attention to the fact the Montreal Protocol, on which the Kyoto Protocol is designed, actually worked?" asked Elizabeth May.

We pushed. Others pushed. The government re-considered, and tomorrow when former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney addresses the world, I will feel hugely pleased. That we succeeded, that, even though it may help the Harper government look better, at least Canada is not embarrassed on the world stage from a petty decision to tell the UN to look elsewhere.

Deep in my heart, I still hope that the anti-Kyoto government of Stephen Harper will realize the urgency of the climate crisis and learn the lesson of Montreal twenty years ago:

Global problems require global solutions, with real targets, legally binding, and the political will to deliver them.

Happy Twentieth Birthday to the Montreal Protocol!