New Challenges to the Montreal Protocol


The Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer is one of the world's most effective examples of environmental cooperation. However, the destruction of the ozone layer is also one of the greatest threats to life on earth that has arisen from human activity and new actions are urgently required by Parties to the Protocol if they are to continue with their commitment to avoid ecological disaster.

The Protocol itself is historically important not only because its controls on the production of ozone-depleting substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), are central to averting continued destruction of the ozone layer but also because it was among the first international environmental agreements to embody the Precautionary Principle (where action is taken in advance of unequivocal proof of a problem because the effects may be so severe).

In 1985, when scientists from the British Antarctic Survey discovered the ozone hole over the southern hemisphere, both the cause and its potential effects were still subject to considerable debate. It was only after 1987, once the Protocol had come into force, that scientific assessments conclusively demonstrated the link between CFCs and ozone depletion. At this point, most of the world's largest chloro-chemical manufacturers came to accept the necessity for change, scenting marvellous new business opportunities in the market for alternatives.

The Protocol, in deference to this emphasis on precautionary action, has proved to be a very flexible international agreement. Control schedules on CFCs and other ozone depleting substances (ODS) have been progressively tightened as further evidence about the global importance of the problem has been gathered. Indeed, production of CFCs, halons, carbon tetrachloride and methyl chloroform have now stopped for the domestic market in developed countries though these chemicals are still manufactured for export and for essential uses. Thanks to this production phase-out, stratospheric chlorine levels and ozone damage are expected to decline after the next few years once CFCs released in the 1980s have made their way into the upper atmosphere. The ozone layer is predicted to be back to 'normal' by the middle of the next century. But the next few years, when stratospheric chlorine will be at its maximum, will be critical as Northern Hemisphere depletion continues to accelerate. Furthermore, concerns that global warming may augment the processes of ozone destruction may be borne out, creating a race to phase out ODS before global warming makes the current situation worse.

In acknowledgement of the additional problems arising from their economic status, developing countries have been allowed a time lag on phasing out the use of CFCs - they are not due to stop production of CFCs until 2010. Concurrent with this deferred phase-out, developed countries have provided funding and technical assistance to assist with the ODS phase-out. Whilst this two-track system has been very valuable in getting the widest possible support for the protocol in the international community, it has also raised new challenges.

Enter the CFC smuggler. Because material is still freely available and cheap in developing countries and is becoming increasingly expensive in developed countries as stockpiles run down, there is a fortune to be made by unscrupulous traders and criminals from diverting material from the former to the latter. The problem has been accentuated by the economic and political problems in Russia, which is not currently in compliance with the Montreal Protocol and still manufactures CFCs for its export and domestic markets.

In the US, it has been estimated that approximately 10,000 tonnes of CFC have been smuggled in 1995 and 1996. In Miami, where the illegal trade was centred, illegal CFCs were second in street value only to crack cocaine. The environmental costs are even greater as the incentive to swap to ozone benign alternative technologies is undermined, supplies for legitimate developing world customers are diverted and CFCs continue to be released into the atmosphere. In 1994, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the cost of cleansing the US of CFCs through to the year 2075 would be approximately US$34 billion but would be offset by the US$32 trillion cost in damages that would be avoided through preventing skin cancer, crop destruction and the like.

In other parts of the world, authorities have been more reluctant to admit there is a problem though the 'footprint' of illicit activities can be seen in markets across the world. For example, in Europe, CFCs are still freely available and prices remain disturbingly low even though the production of CFCs was stopped a year ahead of the rest of the world. Indeed, in Spain, where there are no sanctions against unlicensed imports of CFCs, the price actually fell by 20% last summer. Since the phase-out, Europe's established industry networks of producers, distributors and customers have witnessed the overnight appearance of many outside operators: ghostly brokers with no historical interest in the market, offering large quantities of "unsourced" CFCs for sale on a no-questions-asked basis.

The Protocol is undoubtedly flexible enough to meet these new problems, given the political will to do so, even though trade in ODS was a minor consideration at the time the Protocol was signed. The Protocol gives ample mechanisms and licensing controls for Parties to crack down on this unscrupulous trade.

Without doubt, the Parties' most potent and effective weapon against the illegal trade and the damage it is causing will be to ban the sale of all CFCs in the developed world. The benefits for the ozone layer and for the enforcement of the Protocol provide a compelling argument for the Parties to take this bold measure at their 10th meeting - doing so will continue to ensure the vision and success of the Montreal Protocol.

New chemicals have also been targeted for control as their potential threat has been better understood. This year, the tenth anniversary of the Protocol, the major issue for discussion is going to be about methyl bromide.

Methyl bromide is a very toxic chemical which is used as a pesticide and a fumigant for agricultural produce. Currently, it is not scheduled to be phased-out until 2010 in the developed world with no date as yet accepted for developing countries. Although methyl bromide emissions account for approximately 5-10% of global stratospheric ozone depletion, because the gas enters the stratosphere so quickly, it is very damaging to ozone at the critical time when chlorine levels and ozone depletion are at their maximum. Indeed, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) remarked in 1994, that eliminating methyl bromide use was the single largest remaining step that could be taken to reduce ozone losses and speed the recovery of the ozone layer.

Unlike the CFC phase-out when large industrial producers realised the environmental necessity and moreover the business advantage that introducing alternative chemicals would bring to them, methyl bromide producers will fight their ground every step of the way. Not being producers of alternatives to methyl bromide, to prevent the loss of vast revenues, they will suggest plummeting crop yields and soaring pest damage to their customers causing great concern particularly in African countries where key crop exports are dependant on methyl bromide.

However, the 1995 report of the Methyl Bromide Technical Options Committee, an international, United Nations committee of 45 scientists, manufacturers, users, government representatives and non-governmental organisations, informed the Parties to the Montreal Protocol that there were technically feasible alternatives "either currently available or at an advanced stage of development" for at least 90% of world methyl bromide use.

It is also in developing countries that the most positive benefits of a methyl bromide phase-out will be felt. The most cost effective alternatives to methyl bromide in the developing world (such as biological control, integrated pest management, composting, solarisation, steam treatment as well as soil substrate manipulation) are labour-intensive and will provide significant new opportunities for rural employment. Money will pass into the local community rather than to multi-national chemical companies. Also, because methyl bromide is such an obnoxious toxin, causing dizziness, vomiting, nervous paralysis, death and birth defects, farm worker health and safety as well as groundwater and the local environment, all too often put aside in developing countries, are likely to be greatly improved once methyl bromide use stops.

This is a valuable lesson from the whole Montreal Protocol process and will be part of its legacy for future environmental agreements that the necessity of change for the global good can also effectively be turned to the benefit of the individual and the community. We must also remember that CFCs are still being produced and traded in large quantities across the world, that illegal trade may be undermining the phase-out in developed countries, that global warming may exacerbate ozone depletion and that some of the most potent ozone depleting chemicals have yet to be properly regulated or, as in the case of methyl bromide, yet to have an appropriate phase-out date assigned for the majority of the world's countries. So far, the Montreal Protocol has been a fine example of an orderly transition from global deterioration to more sustainable technology and industries and has proved itself to be flexible and equitable. But the price for this legacy to remain intact is continued vigilance.

Gavin Hayman and Steve Trent of the Environmental Investigation Agency, 15 Bowling Green Lane, London EC1R 0BD, UK. Tel:++44-171-490.7040