Earlier this summer, investigations by the New York Times and the independent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that 18 factories spread across 10 provinces in China were using CFC-11 in foam-blowing products used to insulate buildings, pipes, and appliances such as refrigerators. The chemical is one of a class of compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are famous for their ozone-depleting effects in the stratosphere—but are also extremely potent greenhouse gases, significantly contributing to global warming. They were supposed to have been banned globally by 2010. But the companies told the EIA that the use of CFC-11 was commonplace, appearing in up to 70 percent or more of insulating products in China. “We were absolutely gobsmacked to find that companies very openly confirmed using CFC-11 while acknowledging it was illegal,” said Avipsa Mahapatra of EIA. “The fact that they were so blasé about it, the fact that they told us very openly how pervasive it is in the market.”
The news is indeed shocking.
But as someone who has been a delegate to the international ozone negotiations under the Montreal Protocol—the treaty that guided the global phase-out of CFCs and is currently managing the phase-out of the HCFCs that replaced them—I’m confident that this episode will be promptly addressed and turn out to be another success story from what is widely recognized as the world’s most effective environmental treaty. Where I am not nearly as confident is on achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which I was also involved in negotiating. Fortunately, there are some important lessons that can be learned from this episode and from the Montreal Protocol‘s overall approach to technological transitions that can be helpfully applied in the effort to limit climate change.
First, some background.
A pothole on the road to recovery. On May 16 of this year came the surprise announcement from US government researchers that analysis of air samples showed that the rate of decrease of CFC concentrations had slowed by 50 percent. A team of scientists published a paper in Nature detailing their finding that a 25 percent spike had occurred since 2012 in emissions of CFC-11, a chemical for which countries had reported close to zero production since 2006. “We were shocked, no doubt,” said Stephen Montzka of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and lead author of the paper. “We couldn’t understand how on Earth emissions would be increasing when production had been zero for so long.” The authors’ data strongly suggested the emissions were from eastern Asia.
So, in June, as the New York Times and the EIA investigations wrapped up their investigations, they thought that they had helped to solve the atmospheric mystery described in the Nature paper. The New York Times article even included the made-for-TV moment of Chinese authorities showing up at a factory while its owner was admitting their violations to investigators on the scene. The authorities ordered the factory closed. It was pretty high drama for the usually technocratic world of environmental compliance and enforcement. But it would be up to the parties of the Montreal Protocol to determine how to address the international controversy.
The protocol. The Montreal Protocol has been widely hailed as the gold standard when it comes to international environmental treaties. Designed to protect the ozone layer, it has been ratified by all countries and has overseen the worldwide phase-outs of ozone-depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and then the less ozone-depleting but still harmful hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that had replaced them. These phase-outs have greatly reduced the observable hole in the ozone layer and put it on a path to full recovery by mid-century. Moreover, because many of these ozone-depleting chemicals are also extremely potent greenhouse gases—causing hundreds to thousands of times more warming per kilogram than carbon dioxide—the Montreal Protocol has also played a major and largely underappreciated role in reducing global warming. Scientists estimate that the amount of greenhouse gases that have been avoided by the Montreal Protocol and related ozone-protection efforts is the equivalent of more than 200 billion metric tons of CO2, which is many times more than have been avoided through international climate agreements to date.
The first opportunity for the parties of the Montreal Protocol to address the CFC-11 issue came at the treaty body’s Open-Ended Working Group meeting last month in Vienna, Austria. Although the issue had emerged so recently that it had not even been included on the agenda, the executive secretary of the Ozone Secretariat focused on the urgent need to resolve the matter in her opening remarks. Developed countries that are donors to the Montreal Protocol’s Multilateral Fund, including the United States, expressed particular alarm about the observed increase in CFCs, because they had funded what was supposed to be a complete transition out of CFCs. In addition, dozens of both developed and developing country parties—an unprecedented number, according to experts—joined in co-sponsoring a proposed decision to further investigate the matter.
For its part, China seemed generally willing to accept the findings in the Nature paper, but emphasized that unlike what had appeared in that peer-reviewed journal, the EIA’s findings were not scientific, and may have been obtained unlawfully. (China has the world’s largest polyurethane foam market, accounting for about 40 percent of the world’s consumption. The country was responsible for nearly all East Asian production of CFC-11 and closely related chemicals before they were banned.) China’s representatives said that domestic authorities were aware of—and had already addressed—smaller-scale issues of CFC-11 use, but stressed that there was no large-scale domestic CFC-11 use. China also declared that its own investigations of the factories mentioned in the EIA report found no use of CFC-11. EIA counters that workers at those factories had already explained the various means they use to evade detection by Chinese authorities.
Diving deeper. Here is where the fleeting promise of an open-and-shut case disappears into a growing heap of difficult questions. For instance, do the EIA findings, if accurate, explain all the CFC-11 emissions observed by Montzka’s team? (Montzka thinks there is not yet enough quantitative information to tell.) Since CFCs used in products are not rapidly emitted all at once, but rather leak gradually over time, wouldn’t the approximately 13 metric kilotons of annual emissions the scientists observed imply that total annual CFC-11 production and use is potentially many times higher, potentially 100 kilotons or more annually? And since the also-banned CFC-12 is usually co-produced with CFC-11, is CFC-12 being used or emitted as well? Could it even be that CFC-12 is what is being produced for use and that the observed CFC-11 emissions are from venting the CFC-11 that results from producing CFC-12? These are just a few of the technical questions.
The underlying question, however, and the one with the greatest potential implications for other multilateral environmental efforts, is socio-economic: Why is CFC-11 being made at all, when it had already been banned for years? The factory workers interviewed by EIA claimed that CFC-11 is both cheaper than, and superior to, the legal alternatives for foam-blowing, especially when it comes to large, hard, industrial foams inserted in appliances and other applications. If so, then the use of legal alternatives may prove a challenge elsewhere.
Part of what’s troubling here is that for a phase-down that has been in full effect for decades, effective alternatives were supposed to be widely available for reasonable prices by now. Along with supporting the actions of developing countries through the Multilateral Fund, this is one of the main things that the Montreal Protocol has prided itself on: that its phase-downs of controlled substances have sent timely signals to the market to drive the development and commercialization of cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives to the substances regulated. So why aren’t such alternatives being used? Is it a matter of cost, availability, lax enforcement or something else?
What lessons can we learn from this? As the parties to the Montreal Protocol map the next steps, it is becoming clear that getting answers may be a slow process. The draft decision from Vienna calls for the Montreal Protocol’s Scientific Assessment Panel to prepare a report by the end of next year with further information about the emissions observed, including data from different monitoring stations than were used by the Montzka team. This data may help to more precisely identify the locations of any CFC-11 emissions. It also calls for the treaty body’s Technical and Economic Assessment Panel to investigate the potential sources of the CFC-11 emission—including possible ongoing usage such as in foam-blowing, or leakage from banks of old or discarded equipment containing CFCs. Furthermore, it calls upon parties to submit any relevant scientific information they may have, and calls upon scientific and atmospheric organizations to continue to examine the issue and submit any appropriate data for inclusion in the science report. (This draft decision prepared in Vienna will need to be formally adopted by the Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Quito, Ecuador in November.)
At the same time, China is likely to undertake a more thorough investigation of the situation on the ground, including both the true extent of possible CFC-11 use and where it is being produced. Perhaps China will find that the EIA report was essentially correct: that foam-blowing likely accounts for the observed emissions of CFC-11. It could then undertake a comprehensive effort to fully eliminate any remaining use. But if China does not find significant domestic CFC-11 use, or if it does not find enough to account for the observed emissions, the mystery may endure and the investigation may need to expand into other countries.
The answers to these questions may reveal important lessons for the Montreal Protocol—lessons that can inform implementation of the global phase-out of HCFCs still underway, as well as the recently negotiated global phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). (Though not ozone-depleters, HFCs are super-potent greenhouse gases. Accordingly, this class of chemicals will become the target of the Montreal Protocol’s first phase-down aimed at protecting the climate system, not the ozone layer.)
For example, it may be time to re-examine the methodologies and criteria of the Montreal Protocol’s financial support system. Funders in particular have a right to be frustrated if they are paying to support others’ compliance and it isn’t happening. But all parties have an interest in determining whether key sectors such as foam-blowing were adequately addressed; whether smaller enterprises may have been neglected in the project-based funding of the Multilateral Fund; and whether there was sufficient follow-up with production facilities after supported projects were completed.
Finally, it is worth asking what, if any, are the implications of this Montreal Protocol story for efforts to implement the Paris Agreement on climate change. In many ways, the Paris Agreement is a completely different creature than the Montreal Protocol. Most obviously, the Paris agreement addresses emissions of greenhouse gases—mostly waste gases such as carbon dioxide—from innumerable uses across almost all economic sectors. The Montreal Protocol, on the other hand, addresses the production and consumption of industrial gases intentionally manufactured for specific purposes in a few sectors, such as solvents, foam-blowing, and refrigeration. Also quite different, the Paris Agreement consists of voluntary measures—not universally binding reduction steps—and consequently has no formal compliance regime. Perhaps most important, although the Paris Agreement has an affiliated financial institution (the Green Climate Fund), it was not designed to provide the comprehensive support for technological transitions that the Multilateral Fund has provided to Montreal Protocol parties.
Top-down vs bottom-up. Indeed, these less-exacting features of the Paris Agreement were the ultimate resolution of a core dilemma that had dogged climate negotiations since the ‘90s. The world could put forth a top-down regime, with national emissions reduction targets based on a politically distributed carbon budget that was scientifically estimated to limit long-term global average temperature rise to an agreed level, such as 2 degrees Celsius. But fewer countries would be inclined to join such a strict regime, especially major emitting countries like the United States and China.
Or the world could aim for a treaty that would ensure broader, even universal, participation, by featuring a bottom-up approach, in which countries would put forth voluntary contributions based on their own domestic determinations of capacity and feasibility. With the Paris Agreement, the world opted for the latter approach, recognizing that initial contributions would be inadequate to achieve the agreed-upon long-term temperature goals, but with the hope that the inclusion of all major emitters and the universality of participation could, over time, inspire increasing efforts that could somehow keep such goals within reach.
Hence, the mechanisms and operation of the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement are almost completely divergent. But the underlying actions they are meant to motivate— achieving the greenhouse gas reductions they envision—remain at least generally similar: the development, commercialization and deployment of effective and affordable technologies and practices to replace the predominant, but environmentally harmful, technologies and practices presently used. Therefore, non-compliance in either regime could be considered as a symptom of the failure to fully accomplish one or more elements of this objective; for in a world with equally effective, available and affordable technologies and practices, there is little incentive to cheat by regressing to otherwise obsolete technologies. And if the cost of new technologies remains slightly higher than the polluting ones, then it is the obligation of enforcement authorities to ensure that stakeholders make that extra investment to protect the environment, at least where regulations are in place and parties have committed to do so.
Ultimately, the issues here are deeper than compliance alone, and broader than the ozone regime. Addressing the challenge of climate change requires full worldwide commitment to a rapid transition of the global energy system and other technological transitions that we are far from undertaking as yet—let alone completing. We presently have globally agreed-upon temperature goals that cannot be achieved with present national targets, national targets that cannot be achieved with present national policies, and national policies that are often not fully implemented. A recently released Nature study puts the odds of achieving the Paris Agreement’s 2 degrees Celsius goal at 1-in-20, and its 1.5 degrees Celsius goal at 1-in-100. Another study, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that there was a 5 percent chance of catastrophic warming by 2050 and a smaller chance that humans could even be wiped out within 100 years. Any significant deviation from the modest contributions that countries have so far pledged under the Paris Agreement would ensure failure in achieving the agreed-upon goal of limiting global average temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed, meeting such goals would require countries to massively improve their near-term targets and then fully achieve them.
The good news is that under both the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement, atmospheric observations can be made to determine if the policies adopted are having their desired effect. There is no need to trust when you can verify. But this offers little relief from the bad news that continues to pour in from other scientific observations and from emissions reductions models.
As with protecting the ozone layer, solving the climate challenge remains a matter of taking the necessary actions on the ground and doing so comprehensively across all sources of pollution. But with climate change, there is the risk of passing tipping points that are both irreversible and beyond the level at which feedbacks could cause the natural system to shift, driving further climatic changes—for example, forest carbon or permafrost methane emissions—beyond any human capacity to control. This greatly raises the stakes and the urgency of the climate challenge.
Learning later from atmospheric monitoring about where we went wrong will certainly be less helpful than immediately applying at scale what we have learned already from the world’s most successful environmental treaty—that setting targets is less important than facilitating the necessary work. The key to achieving our increasingly improbable climate goals is to follow the example of the Montreal Protocol, not in setting top-down targets or in building a strong compliance regime, but in making the investments needed to act now: to ensure that technologies are developed and shared; that needed capacity is built in places where it is lacking; and most importantly that financial support is offered for required actions that would not otherwise take place. This kind of undertaking would be massive and enormously expensive. The alternative, however, is simply unacceptable; to most people it still may even be unthinkable. But it’s nonetheless where we’re headed unless we drastically and immediately change course.