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Policy Brief 10-21

The Road to a Climate Change Agreement Runs Through Montreal

by Richard J. Smith

August 2010


The 1987 Montreal Protocol to address ozone layer depletion was a pivotal agreement in the history of global environmental negotiations. It established a process that remains an important precedent for dealing with global environmental problems, including global warming. What made the negotiation of that agreement such an iconic event, and what useful lessons does it hold for climate change negotiators?

Richard Smith cites a number offactors that were critical to the success of the Montreal Protocol. For example: (1) the United States played a leadership role from the beginning, including banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in most aerosols and appointing a chief negotiator with responsibility for developing the U.S. position well before the negotiations began; (2) from the outset all countries that were parties to the agreement, both developed and developing countries, made specific commitments to reduce the production and use of ozone-depleting substances; and (3) the protocol set up a procedure for regularly reviewing and revising its provisions at follow-up meetings, thus accommodating new information rapidly and efficiently. A central lesson that climate change negotiators should learn from the Montreal Protocol is that it set a process in motion, which ultimately led to all parties to the agreement making the necessary commitments to arrest and eventually reverse the deterioration of the stratospheric ozone layer.

Clearly, climate change negotiators face a more complex and far-reaching challenge today. The phaseout of ozone-depleting chemicals and related infrastructure involved major industries such as refrigeration, electronics, fire fighting, and aerosols and cost billions of dollars. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require fundamentally rethinking the present carbon-based societies and taking steps that will affect virtually every aspect of economic activity. Despite this significant difference in the impact on the economic structure of the countries concerned, however, there are similarities between the two challenges, and climate change negotiators would be well advised to reflect on the Montreal Protocol and the lessons that can be learned from it.

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