On September 21, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is organising in New York a ratification ceremony for the Paris climate agreement, inviting countries that haven’t endorsed it till now to do so. The buzz among climate treaty watchers and international diplomats is that this rush to push the agreement through is with an eye on the approaching U.S. elections, as a Donald Trump victory could upset the apple cart for global climate action. Though the U.S. and China, the two top global greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, ratified the treaty at the recently concluded G20 summit, implementation is possible only once the agreement is ready to enter into force. And that won’t happen until 55 countries, accounting for 55 per cent of the global GHG emissions, ratify it.
The Montreal precedent
Back in 1987, on September 16, when 197 member nations of the UN signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, little would they have anticipated that in three decades the purpose for which they were signing the pact would begin to bear fruit: the ozone layer, which at that time was discovered to have a big hole in it due to ozone-depleting chemicals being widely used, is now beginning to show signs of healing. Researchers believe that the size of the ozone hole has shrunk by around 4 million sq km since 2000 and is not as deep as it used to be, thanks to the collective efforts of nations to cut the use of chlorofluorocarbons and other dangerous gases.
The Montreal Protocol offers a model of a successful environmental treaty that brought nations together to act swiftly on protecting the ozone layer. Next month, nations that are party to the protocol will get together in Kigali, Rwanda, to discuss the phasing down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) as the next step towards addressing ozone depletion, also necessary to curb global warming. According to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an HFC phase-down could prevent warming of up to 0.1°C by 2050 and warming of up to 0.5°C by 2100, offering one of the most cost-effective climate mitigation strategies available to the world today.
The more pertinent question is whether the Paris Agreement could succeed similarly in plugging greenhouse gas emissions, though it has a much bigger goal to chase. The Montreal Protocol had to address the use of ozone-depleting substances in select industries where they were widely used whereas the Paris Agreement has to address the challenge of reducing dependence on fossil fuels that continue to be the world's primary source of energy, a tall order.
The experience of implementing the Montreal Protocol offers several lessons which can lead the climate treaty to success. For starters, unlike climate change, the science behind ozone depletion was contested at the time when the protocol was signed. It was only eight years after the Montreal Protocol came into being that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland brought global validation for their work on the formation and decomposition of ozone in the atmosphere. But that did not stop the countries that were party to the protocol from taking necessary action. However, despite the scientific evidence in support of global warming and climate change, signatories to the Paris treaty have much scepticism to overcome before meeting its goal of keeping global warming levels less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
Mr. Trump, the U.S. Republican presidential nominee, has dismissed climate change as a hoax, vowing to remove his country from the Paris climate accord, while commentators have referred to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed action plans on climate change as inadequate. The experience with the Kyoto Protocol signed in 1997 shows that if the U.S. wants, it can topple international efforts to fight climate change — though the then President, Bill Clinton, had signed the protocol in 1997, the U.S. Senate did not approve it, and eventually other major GHG emitters abandoned it as well.
Besides political will, there is the question of funding as well. Industrialised countries had committed in Cancun in 2010 to provide funds rising to $100 billion per year by 2020 for a Green Climate Fund (GCF) to help developing countries invest in green energy and prepare for extreme weather events. However, the GCF has so far raised only $10 billion, and allocated money to only about eight projects since it was first set up.
With the latest addition of Micronesia, 28 countries responsible for over 40 per cent of GHG emissions have ratified the Paris Agreement. But a closer look at the list of countries shows that small countries, especially island nations, with low GHG emissions and high risk of climate catastrophe, have been more prompt. The UNFCCC is confident that more top emitters, including the EU, would soon join the treaty. But the truth is, even after ratification, the pledges made by signatories to the Paris Agreement would be insufficient to keep global warming levels below the danger threshold, as per the UN’s own estimates.
The latest report from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies shows that August 2016 was the hottest month on the planet, about 0.16°C warmer than the previous 2014 record. So even as we celebrate the relative success of the Montreal Protocol in fixing the ozone layer today, the real lesson that the experience offers the world is that a stitch in time saves nine.