After Copenhagen: Cancún, Kyoto… or Montreal?

Chlorofluorocarbons are up to 11,000 times as potent as greenhouse gases as CO2. The Montreal Protocol locked away some 4 years of regular CO2 emissions. And if we try really hard – and look for every old fridge on the scrap yard – we may buy ourselves another 4 years time, before we actually need to cut the real deal. So, in 2014, once again, everything will depend on the US mid-term elections.

Copenhagen failed to deliver a binding new climate treaty. So let’s finish the job next year, governments said. We’ll meet in Cancún – drug gangs make less bad press than those damned European climate activists!

However last year many countries decided to cut government spending and focus on short-term economic interests. Instead of raising emission targets to meet the official UN 2 degree climate target (that IPCC AR4 connects to the 450ppm stabilization level – industrialized nations need to reduce their emissions by 25-40% between 1990 en 2020) some Annex1 countries actually lowered their (intended) reduction targets for the crucial year of 2020.

The US (and Canada, Australia) is still far behind on the EU. The proposed US climate bill only stabilizes the greenhouse gas emissions at the 1990 level. That’s a net reduction of zero percent. With recent election results hampering the Obama government to even implement this legislation – let alone increase ambition – hopes for the new UNFCCC climate conference in Cancún (29 November – 10 December 2010) have definitely faded.

So now people come up with all sorts of alternatives. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, among others, advocates an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, the previous climate treaty, beyond 2012 – with for instance a 20 percent reduction target for the EU ‘as long as China and the US do something’. Japan expressed dislike for this option, fearing the old Kyoto group will once again have to do all the emissions cutting [not that Japan delivered on its own Kyoto target].

Another interesting suggestion comes from the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, a Washington-based sustainability promotor. According to their website IGSD is on a fast-acting climate mitigation campaign, looking for additional, non-energy-related climate mitigation options. ‘Montreal should not only be extended, it should also be accelerated.’

IGSD names ‘that other’ climate treaty, 1987’s Montreal Protocol ‘one of the world’s most successful multilateral environmental agreements, having phased out 97 percent of almost 100 ozone-depleting substances – placing the ozone layer on a path to recovery later this century’. The Montreal Protocol was of course agreed after Paul Crutzen’s theoretical (60s and 70s research – 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and British Antarctic Survey’s practical (accidental discovery of ozone hole in 1985) work on catalytic ozone reactions. Many don’t realize: by now we would have been dead – if it wasn’t for sleep-deprived atmospheric scientists. But the Montreal Protocol has an interesting by-product. CFCs and HCFCs are potent greenhouse gases.

Between 1990 and 2010 the Montreal Protocol achieved a reduction of 135 Gt CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. That’s way more than Kyoto. [Although, to reverse the perspective: it’s what we’ll emit anyway between 2010 and 2014, in pure CO2, land use included.]

According to IGSD this has delayed the onset of irreversible climate change by 12 years, topping off the worst and so far preventing important climate tipping-points.

The good news is, there’s more:

  • According to estimates of the US Environmental Protection Agency an accelerated phase-out of HCFCs (the CFCs that contain hydrogen, and were banned later) could further reduce emissions by 16 Gt over the next 30 years. That is equivalent to 30 years of electricity emissions of 70 million US households, IGSD calculates.
  • Recovering and destroying old CFC containing equipment (stockpiles included) as agreed during the last summit of Montreal Parties would deliver an additional 6 Gt CO2eq reductions.
  • Fasing out HFCs (that third group, used in refrigerators, air conditioners, foams) could be most important. Between 2010 and 2050 it could reduce another 100 billion tonnes of ‘CO2’.

It is clearly an American perspective. Montreal was agreed by Republican Reagan and still enjoys bipartisan support. That cannot be said of measures to reduce fossil fuel consumption. We do however once again risk to lose perspective on priority. We can’t expect to not reduce carbon emissions and still achieve UN climate targets – however important also reducing CFCs may be.

Apart from the CFC focus, IGSD also advocates carbon-related geoengineering measures, like agricultural implementation of biochar. According to biochar expert Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University this has a full-implementation potential of 1 Gt pure carbon per year, some 3,7 Gt CO2.

Not very much. (A little more than 10 percent of annual anthropogenic CO2 emissions – and bear in mind, this is a theoretical scenario.) But as long as these ideas remain in the chapter ‘additional’ – every gram should be welcomed, if the world wants to stay below 450 ppm – let alone listen to that scientific activist.

By the way, to finish off with that other big UN environmental conference: ‘Adding up Montreal, Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancún should do the trick. For geoengineering we don’t like,’ said Nagoya.

© Rolf Schuttenhelm |

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