So, About the Ozone Layer...

I’ve been in Montreal all week for the 20th anniversary of the world’s treaty to save the ozone layer (the Montreal Protocol). In addition to celebrating and handing out awards, diplomats from 190 countries have been negotiating furiously on timetables for phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals. Last week, I explained why we need faster action on HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons) and on methyl bromide (read more here).

We won’t know the final result until very late Friday night. But as of Friday afternoon, it looks like a big breakthrough is coming on HCFCs. The picture is more discouraging on methyl bromide. Here’s what’s likely to happen:  

Developed and developing countries will likely agree to significantly faster phase-out of ozone-destroying HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons).

Developed and developing countries have worked well together this week to agree on a faster legally-binding schedule for both groups to eliminate HCFCs. The deal will sharply cut HCFC emissions, especially by reducing large increases expected in next decade from China and India. The Bush administration deserves credit for working with other countries to push for faster cuts in HCFCs. The faster phase-out will help heal ozone layer and reduce skin cancer, other health effects. Reducing HCFCs also helps cut global warming.

This good result shows once again that the Montreal ozone treaty is a model for progress on global warming. It shows that a binding treaty – with industrial countries taking the lead and with real pollution limits for both developed and developing nations – can successfully cut global pollution and trigger a clean technology revolution.

But despite the lessons of Montreal, the Bush administration will push purely voluntary action on global warming at a UN summit in New York next Monday (Sept. 24th) and at a meeting of the world’s 17 largest global warming polluters in Washington next Thursday and Friday (Sept. 27th-28th)

The lesson seems so clear: You could not have protected the ozone layer with voluntary pledges and non-binding goals. That won’t work for global warming either.

U.S. is likely to receive more large exemptions for ozone-destroying methyl bromide.

In the other direction, the U.S. will get permission to keep making and using methyl bromide, a cancer-causing and ozone-destroying pesticide, in 2009 – four years after a complete ban was supposed to take effect.

The U.S. is the only country that still uses massive amounts of methyl bromide – the U.S. accounts for more than 80 percent of world exemptions. At this rate, the U.S. will keep asking for exemptions for another 5-10 years.

This is the black mark on U.S. leadership in protecting the ozone layer.

In every other developed country, farmers have drastically cut or eliminated their use of methyl bromide by adopting safer alternatives. But here, a handful of chemical producers and suppliers are making millions of dollars peddling this cancer-causing and ozone-destroying chemical to America’s fruit and vegetable growers.

I’ll have more to say on “Climate Week” as events unfold in New York and Washington next week.