The Fight for the First Climate Change Treaty

Greg Drzazgowski/Solutions
Cans of hair spray on the shelves of a Target store carry labels saying “No CFCs.” The 1987 Montreal Protocol was the first climate treaty, binding nations to take action to rapidly reduce the use of CFCs, which were responsible for creating a hole in the ozone layer.

In 1974, chemists Mario Molina and Frank Sherwood Rowland published a landmark article that demonstrated the ability of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to break down the ozone layer, the atmospheric region that plays a vital role in shielding humans and other life from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation.1 It marked the opening salvo of a decade-long fight to phase out and ban the use of these widespread industrial compounds. The period between Molina and Rowland’s article and the establishment of an international agreement to regulate CFCs was remarkably similar to current climate change politics. It included calls for scientific consensus before moving on the issue, industry push back, fears over economic chaos, claims of inadequate chemical substitutes, difficulty in getting industrialized nations to the table, and debates and diplomacy over how to get developing nations to agree to regulate a problem predominantly caused by the industrialized world. Together, these issues created a political climate that was anything but conducive to an agreement for avoiding environmental catastrophe.

And yet an agreement was reached. CFC production was greatly curtailed and disaster was averted. The Montreal Protocol—initially signed by 24 nations in 1987 and now ratified by 196 countries2—bound nations to a set of policies that would rapidly reduce the use of CFCs. It became the first global environmental treaty to implement the precautionary approach, mandating strong actions now to avert future damage.3 The protocol has since become, in the words of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, “perhaps the single most successful international environmental agreement.”4 It can also be called the first climate change treaty, since ozone-depleting substances are potent greenhouse gases. Lessons from the fight and eventual ban of CFCs can illuminate our current struggles to regulate greenhouse gases and provide guidance toward creating a strong treaty necessary to stave off another environmental disaster.

For more than 40 years, the generally nontoxic and nonflammable compounds known as CFCs were widely produced and used in refrigerants, propellants, and solvents. They were first manufactured as a safe alternative to ammonia and sulfur dioxide in refrigeration in the early 1930s.5 Their widespread success, due to their unique and seemingly miraculous chemical properties, propelled an $8 billion industry that employed 600,000 people directly and was reaching new heights of manufacturing at the time of Molina and Rowland’s discovery.6 As CFC production swelled to meet the global demand for aerosol and refrigeration, so too did the release of these ozone-depleting compounds into the atmosphere.

Unlike carbon dioxide, CFCs are a foreign element in the atmosphere.7 When released, CFC molecules rise and reach the ozone layer where they encounter UV radiation. The strong radiation breaks down these molecules into their simpler parts, most notably chlorine atoms.8 Molina and Rowland realized these now free chlorine atoms could react and deplete the ozone layer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one chlorine atom can destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.8 Continuing to produce CFCs at such high levels would inevitably have depleted more of the ozone layer and would have led to greater harm to humans from UV rays. Further studies concurred with Molina and Rowland’s findings and predicted losses of ozone that would have greatly increased cases of skin cancer and eye damage.9 Other detrimental impacts included reduced productivity in plants and crops and harm to marine life and air quality.10

The findings provoked wide-ranging reactions. Emboldened by the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in the United States, the science and environmental communities wanted the U.S. government to ban production and use of CFCs. They saw the depletion of the ozone layer as a grave, imminent threat that needed to be met with decisive action. The CFC industry, led by DuPont, which accounted for nearly 50 percent of the market, attacked the theory as unfounded, arguing that no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed.9 DuPont and other CFC manufacturers lobbied extensively to prevent states from passing bills banning CFC use. They also embarked on an advertising campaign to undermine the idea that CFCs damaged the ozone layer, while simultaneously arguing that any hasty restrictions would have a disastrous impact on businesses, jobs, and the economy.9 DuPont’s chairman, Irving Shapiro, announced to several major newspapers that “the ‘ban-now-find-out-later’ approach thrust upon an $8 billion segment of industry, both in the headlines and in many legislative proposals, is a disturbing trend. Businesses can be destroyed before scientific facts are assembled and evaluated. … The nation cannot afford to act on this and other issues before the full facts are known.”9

Public-health concerns, however, trumped industry arguments, and consumers began boycotting aerosol sprays. Pressure from environmentalists and consumer groups resulted in a ban on aerosol sprays in 1978.11 In the end, though, the ban turned out to be only a partial victory for both sides. Nearly all sprays were banned, but numerous putatively “essential” uses of CFCs in air conditioners and refrigerators remained unregulated.

The United States was the only major CFC-producing nation to voluntarily eliminate CFCs in aerosols, although relatively minor producers such as Canada, Denmark, and Sweden soon followed suit. And while European nations today are at the forefront of promoting climate change legislation, in the 1970s and 1980s, CFC-producing giants like England and France were reluctant to impose restrictions.6

After these initial efforts by individual nations, progress toward an international CFCs agreement ground to a halt in the early 1980s. This was largely because protecting the ozone layer produced an unprecedented problem for human society. The public and governments were being told that the impacts of a thinning ozone layer would not be seen for decades. Yet in order to prevent much higher risks of skin cancer and cataracts, it was essential to act now and begin phasing out CFCs. Manufacturers continued to resist, arguing that in the absence of suitable substitutes, curtailing CFC production would result in significant job losses and a large reduction in the supply of air conditioners and refrigerators. They argued that action on CFCs would harm both the developed and developing world. On top of this, almost all nations would have to agree on a coordinated phase out and eventual ban of the industrial compounds since the release of CFCs by any one nation would have a global impact.

Producers of CFCs continued to wage a public battle against further regulation. Skeptics stepped up their public-relations campaigns disputing the evidence, finding scientists to argue persuasively against the threat, and predicting dire economic consequences.12 The doubt did nothing to change the scientific consensus around CFCs and ozone depletion, but it helped to delay implementation of limits on CFCs for many years.6

Images compiled from Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) data show a difference in the amount of ozone over the South Pole in 1978 (left) and 2003. Green, yellow, and orange shades over Antarctica in 1978 indicate high levels of ozone. Data from September 2003, when the hole in the ozone was at its largest, show much lower levels of ozone in the same region (indicated by shades of blue and purple).

While special interests were fighting it out in the public square, diplomacy was taking place behind the scenes. Domestic and international workshops were assessing the CFC-ozone connection while proposing various regulations, compromises, and deals to get major CFC-producing nations and developing nations to the table to begin talks toward an international agreement.6 The United States and the UN Environment Programme played leading roles. The fruit of this diplomatic labor was the Vienna Convention of March 1985, which produced a framework agreement in which states agreed to cooperate in research and assessments of the ozone problem, to exchange information, and to adopt measures to prevent harm to the ozone layer.13 But the accord fell far short of mandating actions to limit CFC production or of establishing a timetable to phase it out. Much like the current climate change debate, it looked as if action on the issue was about to be stymied by a lengthy political struggle.

Two months later scientists discovered the Antarctic ozone hole. From a climate change perspective, this would be comparable to a large ice sheet breaking off from an ice shelf, melting overnight, and causing a small rise in sea level, thereby warning the world of the potential consequences of unchecked climate change. Scientists discovered that ozone levels over the Antarctic had dropped by 10 percent during the winter and an ozone hole had begun to form.8 The ozone hole is an area with extremely low amounts of ozone, not an actual hole. But the discovery, the first startling proof of the thinning ozone layer, was an alarming wake-up call that human activities can have dire consequences for the atmosphere and in turn major health implications. Intense media attention galvanized public opinion and sparked fears that ozone holes might form over populated cities around the world.6 The EPA estimated that if CFC production continued to grow at 2.5 percent a year until 2050, 150 million Americans would develop skin cancer, leading to some 3 million deaths by 2075.6

After the momentous discovery of ozone depletion, the balance shifted toward regulation. Industry at first still lobbied in private but eventually began to change its position as scientific evidence of ozone depletion continued to mount. In the summer of 1987, as preparations were under way for the Montreal Conference on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Reagan administration publicly came out in support of international limits on CFC production.9 This effectively put a stop to industry opposition and propelled an agreement among industrialized nations to reduce CFC production by 50 percent by 2000. The resulting Montreal Protocol included a ten-year grace period and a fund for developing nations in order to get them to agree to regulate a problem largely generated by the industrialized world. The Multilateral Fund has since provided $2.7 billion to developing nations for transitioning to better technology and CFC substitutes and for meeting phase-out obligations.14 The fund was the first financial instrument of its kind and is the model for the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, in which industrial nations use carbon offsets to provide developing nations with an incentive for conserving their forests.

Since 1987, the Montreal Protocol has been strengthened with the addition of more ozone-damaging substances to the list and the compliance of nearly 200 countries. Ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere hit their peak in 1997–98 and have been falling ever since.8 Action on account of the ozone layer has greatly improved air quality while reducing the future risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and blindness.10 Furthermore, the treaty has done more than any other to reduce climate change by stopping 135 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions from escaping to the atmosphere in the last two decades.15 Due to the nature of CFCs, however, the ozone is still thinning in certain places.16 This may well continue until the middle of the twenty-first century, at which point the ozone layer should begin to recover.

The true significance of the international agreement is best illustrated by a NASA simulation of what would have occurred had CFC production continued at its pre-Montreal rate. By 2020, 17 percent of global ozone would be destroyed. By 2040, the ozone thinning would affect the entire planet. And by 2065, atmospheric ozone drops to 70 percent below 1970s levels.17 As a result, there would have been a threefold increase in the amount of harmful UV radiation reaching the planet’s surface, resulting in tens of millions of skin cancer and cataract cases and trillions in health care costs.4 Luckily, it is a fate we managed to avoid.

The first and foremost lesson to take from the fight to ban CFCs is that it was successful. The discovery that human activity was harming the atmosphere influenced public opinion and consumer buying power enough to change national policy and provide momentum toward an international agreement that enacted regulations to prevent a future catastrophe. Nations agreed to take precautions that would cause some short-term difficulties in order to head off a long-term disaster.

Secondly, health concerns were the driving motivator behind public and government action. Peter Morrisette argues that the passage of a meaningful ozone treaty relied on four key factors: ozone depletion was viewed as a global problem; there was strong scientific understanding of the causes and effects of ozone depletion; there were public-health concerns about skin cancer, which were amplified by the ozone hole discovery; and substitutes for CFCs were available.6 Climate change is also viewed as a global problem and there is a nearly universal consensus among climate scientists over the causes.18 Some argue that the major difference between obtaining a treaty back then and what hinders today’s agreement is a lack of readily available substitutes in the form of alternative energy (wind, solar, electric) to take the place of fossil fuels. Yet the claim that no cost-effective, efficient substitutes were available was also made during the CFC debates. It was not until after the ozone hole discovery, at which point an international agreement seemed likely, that industry announced that substitutes could be made available under the right market conditions and policy incentives. CFC producers used the ensuing protocol as a mechanism to develop and market substitutes.6 Might not a similar situation unfold today if governments enforced greenhouse gas reductions and policy and market conditions fostered alternative energies?

It seems the major difference between a successful ozone treaty and an out-of-reach climate agreement is the weak connection made between climate change and human health. Where ozone depletion was primarily thought of as a human health issue, climate change is an environmental issue. Until that narrative is altered, an agreement on climate change could be elusive.

Encouraging signs toward that end are emerging, none more so than the U.S. EPA declaration that greenhouse gases jeopardize public health. The declaration paves the way for the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants and other facilities.19 The regulatory route seems the most feasible way to reduce greenhouse emissions in the United States, as any climate change legislation has been killed in Congress. The Supreme Court ruling in favor of the EPA gave the agency judicial approval to use its authority to regulate such gases under the Clean Air Act.19 Just as measures to protect the ozone layer have benefited the climate, so too will EPA action on regulating greenhouse gases provide important health benefits by cleaning up the air. It is important to communicate that climate change mitigation will have the added benefit of reducing air pollution and improving respiratory health. It will also reduce the use of fossil fuels like oil and coal whose extraction processes—from mountaintop removal, which clogs streams and pollutes water supplies, to offshore drilling spills, which can contaminate seafood—have direct human health implications.

While regulation at the national level is a good start, an international agreement—perhaps a stronger version of the Kyoto Protocol—will be necessary to achieve global cooperation on climate change. For this to happen, the public will need to voice greater concern and take more action, as it did during the CFC threat. Ozone depletion was framed as an international human health issue, which amplified the public’s demand for accelerated government action. A similar approach may work for climate change. The question that remains is whether a catastrophic discovery similar to the ozone hole will be necessary to spur global concerns over climate change and push governments to act. If so, the consequences may prove to be far more disruptive—economically and ecologically—than the ozone problem of the previous century.