Lessons from Montreal

Greens got their very own 80s revival this week as world leaders marked the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the landmark deal in which 191 countries pledged to rid the world of ozone-busting CFCs.

The anniversary was the cue for some well-deserved backslapping: The developed world phased out CFCs within a few years of inking the deal, and globally more than 95 percent of the treaty's targets have now been met. Scientists say that by 2165, the atmosphere’s rejuvenated radiation barrier will have prevented some 6.3 million skin-cancer deaths in the US alone, saving the health system upwards of $4.2 trillion.

And there's more: Because CFCs are potent greenhouse gases, the Montreal agreement has done more to slow climate change than any other international treaty, delaying global warming by about 12 years. That’s prompted world leaders to try to tighten standards still further: This week, they’re pushing developing nations to complete their CFC-elimination efforts a decade ahead of schedule.

In hindsight, it’s tempting to dismiss the negotiations that led to these successes: Nixing a few noxious chemicals was surely easier than the current struggle to build a climate-change consensus. But in the 1980s, patching the ozone hole was a big deal. Thousands of products used CFCs - including $135 billion worth of refrigerators and air-conditioners in the US alone - and few alternatives were available.

Just like today’s climate-change activists, the Montreal framers had science on their side, but they leveraged that consensus to forge an admirably pragmatic treaty. Signatories agreed to make cuts, but were free to decide how best to do so. Developing nations were given both incentives and technological assistance. And nations agreed to review their progress every four years, to take account of new technologies and scientific evidence.

There’s plenty here for today’s leaders to learn from, but the biggest lesson comes not from Montreal’s successes, but from the limits of its success. The ozone hole is healing, but still spans more than 10 million square miles above Antarctica; it won’t be fully restored until 2075. And while massive improvements have been made, over 100,000 tons of ozone-busting chemicals are still released each year.

The most successful environmental treaty ever conceived will take almost a century to fully achieve its goals. This, then, is the real lesson we should take from Montreal: That there are no quick fixes when it comes to patching up the environment. The damage we do today will be with us for decades to come. If we want to set things right, we no longer have any time to waste.

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