When I was growing up in the late 1980’s, my best friend and I did our elementary school science project on the ozone layer. We made a little clay refrigerator and hair spray can to show where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) lurked, slowly eating a hole in the Earth’s protective layer.
A similar display about the ozone layer would probably land flat in a 4th grade science fair today. Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, which severely restricted the use of the chemicals causing ozone depletion, the hole in the ozone layer has actually started to shrink.
In fact, in 2003, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called the Montreal Protocol the “single most successful international agreement to date.” Pretty impressive from a man who has seen his fair share of international agreements.
Given how rare it is for international problems like the ozone layer to just disappear, I was curious why the Montreal Protocol has been hailed as so successful. Importantly, are there lessons learned can be applied to similar international agreements?
Unsurprisingly, the reason the Montreal Protocol was so successful looks to be a mixture of structural, but probably mostly circumstantial reasons.
On the structure side, the terms of the Protocol were especially flexible. It was written with the ability to include more chemicals and tougher restrictions as the science become clearer, increasing the potency of the agreement.
Secondly, the Protocol included a multi-lateral fund to help developing countries move away from ozone-depleting chemicals. So support structures were in place to help developing countries ditch their old production processes and invest in ones that didn’t harm the ozone layer.
What success factors are harder to replicate? Turns out there are a few:
- There was industry cooperation. According to Ian Rae, a chemist at the University of Melbourne, the chemicals that harmed the ozone layer (primarily CFCs) were old and out of patent by the time the Montreal Protocol came long. So chemical companies like Dupont were quite happy to go along with calls for phasing out these chemicals in favor of newer, more efficient ones.
- The protocol was proceeded by citizen action. According to several experts, one reason ordinary people (9 year-olds included) had an easy time grasping the danger of CFCs, was because anyone could picture what a hole in the earth’s “protective shield” would like. We were told that the ozone layer was keeping us safe from the full power of the sun, which could cause skin cancer and cataracts. So a hole in that protection was clearly something we didn’t want.
Even before the Montreal Protocol came along, citizens in the US and Europe had already begun to boycott the spray cans that used CFCs as propellant for things like hair spray and deodorant. Politicians and industry hence saw that this was an issue important to regular citizens, making political action that much easier.
- The U.S had more to gain by complying than sitting this one out. While today political actors such as India, China and the EU are hugely powerful in the international arena, in the 1980s and 90’s, the US was still the dominant superpower, points out Carbon Brief. In 1987, when the Montreal Protocol was signed, the global community looked to the US to signal compliance with the agreement.
Fortunately for the ozone layer, the US saw more reasons to comply with the agreement than ignore it. As the author of a working paper from the University of Chicago Law School points out, not only were there low domestic costs to going along with Montreal (industry and the public were already on board), but there were direct health reasons, too. The Environmental Protection Agency had predicted that if nothing was done about the hole in the ozone, Americans would suffer millions of skin cancer deaths and millions more cases of cataracts in the coming century. Few things make more political sense than the low-cost opportunity to avoid cancer and loss of eyesight in the American population.
In the end, the Montreal Protocol seems to have been the perfect combination of a well-crafted treaty combined with an easy-to-understand, actionable danger.
I am passionate about helping people become informed, empowered and enthusiastic donors. After more than 10 years in the nonprofit/charity sector, I embraced my fear of spreadsheets and got an MBA so that I could help citizens like myself become more strategic givers. Today, I use my unique experiences in both sectors to help people who care deeply about using their money to make the world a better place.