In 1987, delegates from around the world gathered in Montreal to discuss what could be done to stop the depletion of the ozone layer - that part of the Earth's atmosphere that protects us from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The issue was one of the most pressing environmental debates of the 1980s, and the meeting in Montreal produced what former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan has called "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date:" The Montreal Protocol, a treaty that began phasing out those substances considered responsible for the ozone layer's depletion.
The Protocol worked not only because it was ratified by 196 states, but because the timetable it produced for replacing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrofluorochlorocarbons (HCFCs) - widely used in cooling systems for refrigerators and air conditioners, as well as aerosol sprays - with more ozone-friendly hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) has been both manageable and highly effective.
As the signatories to the Montreal Protocol meet this week in Indonesia, however, the United Nations has released a new report that suggests all is not well with the increased use of HFCs. They may be great for the ozone layer, but the HFCs are also potent greenhouse gases that may accelerate global warming. By 2050, they could be responsible for as many emissions as the world's transport sector.
Isn't that just the way? You solve one problem, and you just get another. If our solutions to environmental problems just create more environmental problems, how are we to get ahead?
Perhaps by seeing the forest for the trees: The Montreal Protocol was successful in part because it enabled us to change our zone-depleting emissions without really changing our activities. By replacing CFCs with HFCs, we were able to still use our air conditioners and aerosol sprays, with no big difference. UN scientists suggest how we can take the next step: designing buildings that don't rely so much on air-conditioning in the first place, or cutting back on our need for aerosol sprays.
Finding a way to reduce the impact of a specific human activity is a good thing; with a world population of seven billion people and growing, finding a way of reducing that activity all together could be a good next step. Hopefully when delegates arrive at the World Climate Summit in South Africa in two weeks, that will be on the agenda.