Covenant with the future

OUR PLANET 9.2 - Ozone

Covenant with the future


gives a first-hand account of how the international community has set out to safeguard humanity's atmospheric heritage


Ten years ago the international community made a covenant with the future. The world has never before seen a treaty like the Montreal Protocol. And unless there is extreme vigilance and courage at the highest political levels, it is unlikely ever to see one like it again.

The world community was first made aware in the early 1970s of the damage that could occur to the stratospheric ozone layer from the continued emission of ozone-depleting substances (ODS). At first, there was heated scientific debate. But it soon became evident that it would be immoral to bequeath the down side of this environmental risk management problem to future generations. This was also clearly a global problem that could only be remedied by a global response: and this, in turn, could only be achieved if there was political will on a global scale, requiring collective
and cooperative actions by governments, industries and all other interested parties.

Global efforts to protect the ozone layer began in earnest in late 1981. The Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, signed in March 1985, was the important first step. This provides a framework for cooperative activities, including exchanging data, but no agreement could be reached, at the time, on specific control measures. The negotiations on the Montreal Protocol can most charitably be described as 'difficult'. But the final signing of the Protocol, in September 1987, heralded the start of a chain of remarkable achievements.

The Protocol put in place an international process for controlling all ODS by:

- Providing both short and long-term plans for addressing all the substances - and a mandated phase-down which stimulated the development of environmentally acceptable substitutes or alternatives, and influenced markets by placing constraints on supply and demand.

- Signalling to producers and users that society's tolerance of these controlled substances would be short-lived and that future investment decisions should be made accordingly.

- Putting in place a dynamic process, driven by science and technology, which allowed the stringency and scope of the controls to be adjusted in response to current scientific understanding, environmental effects, technological capabilities and economic considerations.

- Providing, within its own framework, an incentive for developing countries to join the Protocol early without fear of additional economic hardship.

- Providing for trade sanctions as a way of denying access to the world's lucrative markets to those that chose not to join.

The signing of the Montreal Protocol was a beginning, not an end. There was a sense, especially in industry, that much time would be needed to see real progress on the ground. But the international community found it unacceptable to assume that the early reductions agreement (based on political consensus rather than the science) should survive longer than the very short term. Its message was simple: 'We must move further, faster. Future generations are counting on us.' Thus the onus was placed on developers or supporters of technical solutions to show how the schedule could be accelerated.

Ten years later the world has gone further and faster than anyone dreamed possible. Those responsible, many of whom will be at the tenth anniversary conference in Montreal, deserve both credit and global recognition. Through creating supportive panels of experts, they demonstrated that there was sufficient information to make key decisions to secure a reasonable universal lifestyle without further degrading the atmospheric environment. The panels' data were widely accepted by the international community, which agreed to press ahead in making continuous improvements, if only in small steps.

The Protocol represents political understanding and commitment between governments on both the direction of policy and action. It recognizes that all sectors of society must be actively engaged in formulating policy and in planning and implementing action, if there is to be success. Decisions that so intimately affect personal well-being can no longer be the sole prerogative of governments. The Protocol managed to achieve a web of interconnected relationships and commitments, and many sectors deserve much credit.

Unprecedented cooperation

Industry, for example, has long realized the importance of international controls, looking to the intergovernmental community to agree standards of behaviour to avoid disrupting economies and trade. But industry went much further than this under the Protocol, entering an unprecedented level of cooperation to find solutions as fast as possible. In many instances, it redefined its corporate ethics in the process - moving from doing the minimum that the law requires to doing the right thing even if that meant far exceeding the letter and even the spirit of the law. The profit criterion was often held in abeyance for the timely achievement of the greater good.

man working For their part, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were the restrained voice of conscience during the verbal wars to protect the ozone layer. Their active presence and constructive contributions to the debate, and their role in making ozone layer protection a political issue in many countries, were major contributions - proving that there was a better alternative to confrontation. They gave us constant reminders that spaceship Earth carries no passengers, just crew members - each of whom bears responsibility for keeping it on course. The property of all, they insisted, will remain the responsibility of none - unless each finds the strength of personal conviction to emerge from under the weight of self-interest. The negotiations, often traumatic and sometimes paralysed by unrelenting self-interests, were often re-energized by their reminders of what really mattered.

The second major milestone was the amendment of the Protocol in London in 1990. This saw its most dramatic achievement not in the increased stringency and scope of its technical revisions, although these were important, but in the introduction of ethical revisions to the world.

Global bargain

As the Indian scientist, Anil Agarwal, has noted: 'Global environmental concern is all about caring and sharing and learning to live within the limits of the Earth's environment.' In 1990, the international community supported a new paradigm of relations between developed and developing countries, characterized by equality, dialogue, trust and partnership. For the first time in history, it was able to strike a global bargain on an environmental issue whereby the most affluent 20 to 25 per cent of the world's population agreed to provide the 75 to 80 per cent of the world's financially poorer peoples with financial and technical assistance so that they could address their obligations under the treaty at no net costs to their often already cash-starved economies. The inclusion of the multilateral funding mechanism transformed the Montreal Protocol into perhaps the first environmental treaty predicated on, and taking formal recognition of, the concept of mutual need.

The Multilateral Fund, to my mind, is all about caring, sharing and the pursuit of mutual need. The Protocol's consultative framework provides a forum where developed and developing countries engage equitably in dialogue to address common concerns, collectively moving from the concept of donors and recipients to one of successful partnership to solve global problems. The Montreal Protocol experience has thus dramatically altered the way in which multisectoral participation and consultation are viewed
and valued.

Many can take great pride in the creation of the Montreal Protocol and its continuous improvement and evolution. There are many unsung contributors to this success story from industry, the inner sanctums of government, and the NGO community. But the work is not yet finished. Each sector still has an opportunity - and an obligation - to undertake an holistic audit or update of its goals, its aspirations and its responsibilities so as to enunciate the remedial measures it will pursue to protect humanity's atmospheric heritage. In this way, we will update our social contract, the workplan for our covenant with the future.

G. Victor Buxton, an executive with Environment Canada, is currently on leave of absence and managing ENACT (Environmental Alliance Program) - a long-term multisectoral Canada-sponsored capacity-building programme for Jamaica. He is located at the Natural Resources Conservation Authority, Kingston, Jamaica.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Atmosphere 1996
K. Madhava Sarma: Of potholes and ozone holes (Hazardous Waste) 1999
Mostafa K. Tolba: Informal diplomacy (Hazardous Waste) 1999
Mario J. Molina: Saving the shield (UNEP 25) 1997

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