The Unintended Consequences of Montreal

Photo of a refrigerator.Apparently, the process intended to curb global warming by eliminating chloroflourocarbons (otherwise known as CFCs) wasn’t quite as easy as it first looked. Replacing CFCs have caused some unanticipated consequences, namely making the global warming problem worse. CFCs, commonly found in older refrigerators and aerosol canisters, are used as propellants and fire suppressants, among many other uses, and have been essentially illegal since the Montreal Protocol was put into force in 1989.

Some of the replacement chemicals whose use has grown because of the Montreal treaty – hydrochloroflourocarbons, or HCFCs, and their byproducts, hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs – decompose faster than CFCs because they contain hydrogen.

But, like CFCs, they are considered potent greenhouse gases that harm the climate – up to 10,000 times worse than carbon dioxide emissions.

The Kyoto treaty’s goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, motor vehicles and other sources that burn fossil fuels by about 1 billion tons by 2015.

Use of HCFCs and HFCs is projected to add the equivalent of 2 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere by the same year, U.N. climate experts said in a recent report. The CFCs they replace also would have added that much.

“But now the question is, who’s going to ensure that the replacements are not going to cause global warming?” said Alexander von Bismarck, campaigns director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit watchdog group in London and Washington, D.C. “It’s shocking that so far nobody’s taking responsibility.”

“A massive opportunity to help stave off climate change is currently being cast aside,” he said.

The U.N. report says the atmosphere could be spared the equivalent of 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions if countries used ammonia, hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide or other ozone-friendly chemicals, rather than HCFCs and HFCs, in foams and refrigerants. Such alternatives are more common in Europe.

— “Ozone fixes prove worse for warming”, The Associated Press, August 21, 2006

Solutions, however well intentioned, must always be crafted in such a way as to ensure that implementing that solution always has a net positive impact. Certainly, the elimination of CFC is a good thing – with unintended side effects. The Montreal Protocol was somewhat short-sighted by only targeting CFCs in its ban, but was an essential starting point. It’s time to go further and ensure that ozone-depleting substances are phased out entirely, no matter what their use or origin.