Montreal Protocol Continues Process of Morphing Into A Climate Treaty

The 32nd Meeting of the Parties to the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol) will be held from November 23 to 27. Originally set for Tashkent, Uzbekistan, this United Nations meeting has been moved online because of COVID-19 concerns. The original purpose of the Montreal Protocol—banning the compounds blamed for ozone depletion such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—is largely completed. Nonetheless, the treaty is well on its way toward being turned into a climate policy tool, and this process will take up much of the agenda for the week.

The act of mission creep was accomplished at the 2016 meeting of the parties in Kigali, Rwanda. The product of that meeting, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, extends the treaty’s jurisdiction to target hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the ozone-friendly replacements for CFCs in many air conditioning and refrigeration applications. But while CFCs were restricted based on their ozone depletion potential, HFCs are now to be restricted based on their global warming potential.

A number of details regarding the restrictions on future HFC production will be discussed at the meeting. This includes the funding of the U.N. Multilateral Fund, through which developed nations help finance the transition away from banned compounds in developing nations.

The stakes are high. In the United States, literally hundreds of millions of pieces of equipment— most vehicle air conditioners, home air conditioners and refrigerators, and most commercial air conditioning and refrigeration equipment—rely on HFCs. Not surprisingly, rent-seeking companies, led by Honeywell and Chemours which have patented a number of costly HFC substitutes, are strongly supportive of these efforts.

To date, the U.S. is not a part of the Kigali Amendment. President Trump has declined to submit the treaty provision to the Senate for the required ratification vote. Nonetheless, the Kigali Amendment went into force among signatory nations in 2019, and the process of phasing down HFC production has begun.

It can be safely assumed that a President Biden would make an attempt at ratification, with a cost to American consumers that could easily reach into the tens of billions of dollars.