Doomsday Déjà vu: Ozone Depletion's Lessons for Global Warming

Doomsday Déjà vu: Ozone Depletion's Lessons for Global Warming

October 01, 1998

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The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the international agreement to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases suspected of contributing to global warming, is in many respects an unprecedented endeavor. Never before has so much been asked of the world in the name of preventing an alleged environmental problem.

One issue has attracted comparison – ozone depletion and the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. Proponents of the Kyoto Protocol often cite the Montreal Protocol as a successful precedent, and hope to emulate, in a global warming context, its worldwide restrictions on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other compounds suspected of depleting the ozone layer. They argue that the Montreal Protocol:

  • represents a successful application of the precautionary principle in that it proactively averted a potential environmental crisis;

  • achieved its goals at minimal cost;

  • demonstrated that global cooperation and compliance with environmental regulations can be achieved.

Contrary to these assertions, the Montreal Protocol should actually serve as a cautionary tale. With the passage of more than ten years since the Montreal Protocol’s enactment, the evidence is now clear that:

  • the threat posed by ozone depletion was far less serious and imminent than originally stated, thus the benefits of the Montreal Protocol are considerably lower;

  • the costs of implementing the Protocol’s provisions have been, and continue to be, substantial;

  • global compliance has been inconsistent.

The mistakes of the Montreal Protocol will be even more pronounced if repeated in the Kyoto Protocol. As with ozone depletion, the evidence that global warming poses a genuine threat in need of immediate countermeasures is still quite weak, raising the possibility that the Kyoto Protocol will be another overreaction to an exaggerated environmental concern. But this time, the costs of overreacting will be far higher. While CFCs are an important class of chemicals, carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, is the ubiquitous by-product of all fossil fuel consumption, which forms the backbone of every healthy economy. Moreover, the difficulties and inequities in globally implementing and enforcing the Montreal Protocol should raise serious doubts that the more ambitious Kyoto Protocol could work as intended.