Montreal Ozone Depletion Protocol No Model for Global Warming

Published January 1, 1999

The national hysteria being whipped up by the media and special interest groups in response to global warming is beginning to look very much like the emotional crusade launched a decade ago to halt depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.

And just as Americans suffered most from the total ban on chemicals thought to be responsible for ozone depletion, they will ultimately end up paying the most for compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2010.

The model for what Kyoto will likely become is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

“The mistakes of the Montreal Protocol will be even more pronounced if repeated in the Kyoto Protocol,” writes Ben Lieberman in “Doomsday Deja Vu: Ozone Depletion’s Lessons for Global Warming,” written for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington, DC-based think tank. Lieberman is an environmental research associate at CEI.

U.S. costs associated with the Montreal Protocol’s efforts to eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-damaging chemicals from 1987 through 2060 vary depending on which assumptions are used, but Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the final tab will range between $40 billion and $60 billion. In a 1994 study, Lieberman put the country’s costs at $45 billion to $100 billion.

Meeting the requirements of the Kyoto treaty could be much costlier, Lieberman argues. While the Montreal agreement dealt with a specific class of chemicals, the global warming pact is aimed at emissions produced by all fossil fuel use.

Compliance and an adequate enforcement mechanism to deter violators of the Kyoto pact should be another area of concern for the United States, noted Lieberman. The Montreal Protocol has glaring weaknesses in both areas.

The Montreal Protocol dates to the 1970s, when aircraft exhaust, nuclear testing, and nitrogen-based fertilizers were said to be depleting the ozone layer that protects the Earth from ultraviolet-B radiation (UVB).

Without protection against UVB, environmentalists and policymakers argued, humans would face an increased risk of skin cancer and blindness. Neither of these predictions has materialized.

The earliest successful campaign to address the ozone depletion “crisis” resulted in this country scrapping its plans to build a fleet of high-flying Supersonic Transports (SST) whose exhaust, critics claimed, could result in severe ozone depletion.

Aerosol spray cans were the initial target of the Montreal pact, because CFCs were used as propellants; CFCs used in refrigerators and air conditioners were added to the hit list later.

As an issue, ozone depletion cooled considerably during the early 1980s, but it bounced back stronger than ever in 1985 following news of the Antarctic ozone hole “discovered” by a team of British scientists who noted an “unprecedented drop” in ozone levels between September and November.

(The term “hole,” Lieberman notes, is misleading because ozone never disappears completely, and even over the Antarctic it returns to normal levels for the rest of the year.)

In 1992, supporters of the ozone depletion theory received another major boost when NASA called an “emergency” press conference to alert the world that an Antarctic-like hole was likely to open over the Arctic region and extend into North America.

That cataclysmic event never occurred, and NASA eventually admitted its error. But little attention was paid to that admission, nor did it result in any changes in policy.

Lieberman argues that if the American people are to avoid the mistakes of the Montreal Protocol, several myths about the agreement must be put to rest. In part, these are:

Myth: The agreement was a successful application of the precautionary principle. Rather than averting a dire environmental threat, the Montreal Protocol has proven to be an overreaction to a largely non-existent problem.

Myth: The pact has shown that global environmental concerns can be quickly addressed at minimal cost. To the contrary, the Montreal Protocol is an expensive proposition whose costs could exceed $100 billion, excluding the effects on public health, as refrigeration and air conditioning become more costly and less available in many areas of the world.

Myth: The Montreal Protocol process was driven by sound, objective science. In fact, the science and the method in which it was summarized and communicated to policymakers and the public was manipulated by a self-interested bureaucracy and environmental advocacy groups to advance a predetermined agenda.

Myth: The agreement proves that global cooperation and compliance can be achieved. Excluding the efforts of the United States and other developed countries, there would not have been substantial declines in CFC production and use. Overall, global compliance has been inconsistent, especially among the large developing nations.

Myth: The Montreal Protocol is fair. Americans, especially consumers, are carrying most of the financial burden associated with compliance, while developing nations are being asked to jeopardize their economic prospects and public health.

“Before policymakers allow the Montreal Protocol to be emulated in a global warming context,” concludes Lieberman, “it is worthwhile to critically evaluate it. In many respects, the Montreal Protocol should serve as a cautionary tale.”