Good news! Earlier this week, scientists
announced that the hole in the ozone layer has
The news comes almost three decades after every
member of the United Nations signed the Montreal Protocol, a treaty
to curb emissions known to damage the atmosphere.
have argued that the protocol’s success shows what can happen
when governments put their minds to tackling major environmental
problems. Why, they ask, can’t politicians do the same thing for
The question has been posed
many times, most recently by the Guardian’s George Monbiot.
Yesterday, he called on politicians to
show the same “political courage” they did back in 1987. If
they do, maybe the world will at last see some tangible progress
towards cutting emissions and curbing global warming, he
But is political will the only thing stopping
politicians establishing a comprehensive climate treaty? We explore
the obstacles to creating the equivalent of the Montreal protocol
for climate change.
The Montreal protocol and international climate
agreements are similar in as much as they both try to address
problems in the atmosphere identified by scientists.
But the relatively simple impact of emitting
chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer may have made the
issue easier for policymakers to engage with than climate
In CFCs case, it was clear their use was creating a hole in the
atmosphere and scientists could present this in a simple,
Goddard Institute, view of the atmosphere over Antarctica in
1989. The blue shading is the hole in the Ozone layer.
But when it comes to climate change, the impacts
are more complex. Greenhouse gas emissions cause
multiple impacts across the world at different times.
It’s an environmental challenge that encompasses the whole
Dr Hugh Dyer from Leeds University’s school of politics and
international studies says the ozone issue’s comparatively narrow
focus meant there was “less opportunity for scientific uncertainty”
to infiltrate the political negotiations than in climate
Dr Hannes Stephan, lecturer in environmental politics and policy
at the University of Stirling, agrees. He claims climate science is
“such a complicated system that we’ll always have some surprises”,
leading to scientific contestation. “That contestation is not a
problem within science, but translating it in the political arena
is complicated”, he says.
That may be particularly true when there’s as range of vested
interests trying to ensure the core scientific message gets
muddled. As a consequence, the “ozone hole sounds much more
threatening to [politicians] than climate change”, he argues.
While science necessarily informs international climate
negotiations, it’s not enough to deliver an agreement. Past
experiences show that politics is also paramount. And a lot has
changed in almost 30 years.
The Montreal protocol was agreed at a time when the US was
considered to be the world’s dominant superpower. That allowed the
US, which was in favour of curbing CFC emissions, to cajole other
countries into taking action, Stephan says.
This is no longer the case. In the international
climate negotiations there are at least four major players that
don’t see eye to eye: the US, China, India and the EU. The lack of
a global hegemon has arguably
led recent climate negotiations to grind to a
with the US and China in particular
waiting for the other to make the first
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC), which determines the rules of the climate
negotiations, also allows smaller countries to disrupt proceedings.
The UNFCCC’s requirement that all countries agree to a new treaty
multiple voting blocs have formed, each with
their own competing demands.
Source: Chatham House, international climate
voting blocs before 1997 and in 2013, by Farhana Yamin.
There was some political conflict over the
Montreal Protocol, with developing nations arguing that they
wouldn’t be able to afford to phase out CFCs. But this was largely
overcome by countries adopting a
financial mechanism to help poorer countries
Countries established a similar Green Climate Fund in 2009 to
help developing nations cope with the impacts of climate change.
But the fund is
almost running dry, with developed countries reluctant to make
So the Montreal protocol’s politics were a lot simpler, and the
sums of money involved much smaller, than in international climate
negotiations. That potentially allowed swifter progress, Stephan
When it came to fixing the ozone, perhaps the biggest difference
was that scientists had the advantage of being able to present
policymakers with an immediate alternative.
Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were
known to be able to do the same job as CFCs.
The same cannot be said of climate change.
While low carbon energy sources like renewables and nuclear
can replace fossil fuels to an extent, it’s not a simple
like-for-like switch. Decarbonising transport, industry, and
agriculture also presents a range of challenges to which there are
currently no straightforward solutions.
So while “ozone depletion could be agreed and acted on with
limited costs and limited complications”, Dyer says, emitting
greenhouse gases “remains linked to our ways of life”. That makes
persuading people to act on climate change a lot harder than simply
switching one set of chemicals for another.
With what we now know about the difficulties of agreeing a
global climate deal, delivering the Montreal protocol perhaps looks
like an easy feat. But “despite the favourable conditions, it still
took considerable negotiating skill”, Stephan says.
Given the additional complications climate negotiators face,
it’s possible the optimism that comes from seeing the Montreal
protocol’s success is “misplaced”, he argues.
There’s likely to be some form of international
agreement on climate change in the future. But the issue’s inherent
complexity perhaps makes it unreasonable to expect politicians to
deliver the climate-equivalent of the Montreal protocol, even if
there were the political will to do so.