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Montreal Protocol: An effective tool for controlling ozone depletion?


For centuries, human activity has been altering the natural environment. Science has been preoccupied by how these changes affect the earth's natural support system and the impact that might have on life form, particularly man. The effects of most human activities are more or less fully understood, from the contribution of pollution to global warning, to the link between deforestation and the advancement of the desert. Yet, some man made phenomenon still require investigation to be fully characterised. One of these is the depletion of the ozone layer, the band of ozone molecules that occur in the upper atmosphere, which is known to protect the surface of the earth from potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. The processes that lead to its depletion and increased passage of the sun's UV radiations due to ozone loss are fully understood, but its full impact on the natural environment is still inconclusive. There has for example, been no direct link between skin cancers and exposure to UV radiation. Such limitations from the best available science is the basis for the precautionary principle in environmental management.

The global community has not waited to have a clear understanding of the threat posed by high UV radiations resulting from ozone depletion to take steps to keep the protective ozone layer in tact. The Vienna Convention on the Protecting of the Ozone layer was signed in 1985. In 1987, governments adopted the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the Ozone layer. The goal of the Protocol was to reduce ozone loss by phasing out ozone depleting substances (ODS), especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The treaty is being praised as one of the most successful international instruments of environmental protection. It was the first in history to attain universal ratification, with 197 parties (UNEP). It is also one of the first international agreements to recognise the precautionary principle. This principle give direction on course of action on environmental issues, where there is scientific doubt (Razman et al, 2010).

More than 25 years after its adoption, is the Montreal Protocol meeting the goal of curbing ozone depleting substances and healing the ozone layer? This work argues that the Montreal Protocol faces some challenges but has mostly been successful. The shear number of states that have ratified the protocol puts it well ahead of other international agreements on environmental management, at least in terms, of political engagement. To argue our conclusion, we begin with a descriptive analysis of the Montreal Protocol and the ozone depletion phenomenon in Part I, followed by a critical analysis of the effectiveness of the protocol in Part II.

Montreal Protocol: A remedy for ozone depletion

Chlorofluorocarbons and other ODSs have been indicted for the depletion of the ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol provides a global mechanism for checking the production and use of ODSs, with the hope that ozone depletion would be slowed down and reversed. Ultimately, the Protocol outline actions that could lead to the healing of the ozone layer.

A) Montreal Protocol: a closer look

The purpose of the Montreal Protocol is captured in this excerpt from the treaty: “Recognizing that worldwide emissions of certain substances, including ST, can significantly deplete and otherwise modify the ozone layer in a manner that is likely to result in adverse effects on human health and the environment, ... Determined to protect the ozone layer by taking precautionary measures to control equitably total global emissions of substances that deplete it, with the ultimate objective of their elimination on the basis of developments in scientific knowledge ... Acknowledging that special provision, including ST is required to meet the needs of developing countries..."

1. Ambitious targets

A hundred and ninety seven governments and the EU have so far ratified the Montreal Protocol. This represents the highest number of ratifications registered by any international treaty, making it an example of exceptional international cooperation. In 1999, it became the first international agreement in history to register universal ratification (UNEP). The protocol, initiated to implement the Vienna Convention, was open for signature on 16 September 1987 and parties met for the first time in May 1989 in Helsinki. Since its ratification, the protocol has been revised seven times: London(1990), Nairobi (1991), Copenhagen (1992), Bangkok (1993), Vienna (1995), Montreal (1997) and Beijing (1999).

The treaty targets 100 ODSs, classified into seven groups (Table 1), providing a timetable (Annex1) to phase out their production and eventually eliminate their use. Under the protocol, parties agreed to freeze the production and consumption of the less active hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2013, and start reducing production and consumption by 2015. HCFCs are transitional substances used as refrigerants, solvents, fire extinguishers in replacement of more active CFCs.

One of the strengths of the protocol is the preclusion of trading in ODSs between a party and non-party country.

|TABLE 1: ODSs categorized |
|CFCs: The most commonly used of the chemicals controlled by the Protocol were chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. These |
|chemicals were widely used in a large variety of activities and products including refrigeration, foams and metals |
|cleaning. By 2010, CFCs have been virtually phased out worldwide with remaining uses limited primarily to medical |
|inhalers; |
| |
|Halons: Probably the second most commonly used class of chemicals was halons, which were used as fire fighting agents |
|in everything from extinguishers to total flooding systems in computer rooms. The global community has phased out new |
|production of these chemicals but use from stockpiles and recycled halons still continues for such uses as aircraft and|
|military applications; |
| |
|Carbon tetrachloride: Another commonly used ozone depleting substance was carbon tetrachloride, which was used |
|primarily as an industrial cleaning solvent. Developed countries phased out the use of this chemical in 1996, while |
|developing countries achieved a 99% reduction by 2009 and are due to achieve total phase-out in 2010. Carbon |
|tetrachloride is also widely used as a feedstock substance in the production of other chemicals. As its use for |
|feedstock results in very small emissions, this use is not controlled by the Montreal Protocol; |
| |
|HCFCs: Another commonly used class of ozone depleting substances is hydrochlorofluorocarbons, or HCFCs. HCFCs |
|constitute the largest group of chemicals controlled under the Protocol, and currently represent the largest remaining |
|use of ozone depleting substances. These chemicals have, since 1990, been viewed as transitional substances; while |
|their relatively low ozone impact resulted in their use as an early replacement to CFCs in many refrigeration and foams|
|uses, the Parties always knew that they needed to be phased-out. Given the long lifetimes of the applications of these |
|chemicals (e.g., in refrigeration equipment), the Parties originally agreed to an extended phase-out period with a |
|total phase-out in developed countries by 2030 and a final phase-out in developing countries by 2040. However, in an |
|effort to address both the ozone and climate consequences of continued use of these chemicals, the Parties agreed in |
|2007 to adjust the Protocol’s HCFC control schedule to achieve a faster phase-out. In addition, they agreed to strive |
|to achieve that phase-out in a manner that advanced the protection of the climate system. This effort is in keeping |
|with the progressive work of the Parties, which seeks to ensure its efforts maximize total environmental benefits; |
| |
|Methyl chloroform: Methyl chloroform was used as an industrial cleaning solvent. This use has been |
|phased out in developed countries and developing countries had by 2007 achieved a virtual phase-out, over seven years |
|in advance of the Protocol’s phase-out requirements; |
| |
|Methyl bromide: Another widely used ozone depleting substance is methyl bromide, an agricultural fumigant. This |
|chemical, which was added to the Protocol in 1992, has a wide variety of agricultural uses. Developed countries were to|
|have achieved phase-out of the substance in 2005. While agreed critical uses constituted some 30% of historic uses at |
|that time, the adoption of alternatives has, by 2009, brought that number down substantially. By 2008, developing |
|countries had phased out about 66% of this chemical and were well on their way to achieving a complete phase-out by |
|2015. Methyl bromide is also used by a large number of countries and for a large number of commodities in trade related|
|uses referred to as quarantine and pre-shipment applications. While the Parties are striving to reduce or eliminate |
|their use of methyl bromide for these applications, this use is currently exempt from the Protocol’s phase-out |
|requirements; |
| |
|Other chemicals: The final categories of ozone depleting substances, hydrobromofluorocarbons (HBFCs), |
|bromochloromethane (BCM) and other fully halogenated CFCs were niche chemicals with very small markets. They were |
|generally included in the Protocol as a precaution, to eliminate the possibility that their usage would increase. |
|Source: UNEP ( |

2. Montreal protocol and the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle allows policy-makers to take action when a phenomenon is suspected to have a harmful effect on man or the environment, even before there is any conclusive science (or scientific consensus) to support the potential harm. The principle draws from the notion of social responsibility to protect the public from harm. Such protection can be relaxed if new scientific evidence allows. This principle derives from the traditional approach in dealing with global environmental protection (Razman et al, 2010).

As earlier stated, the Montreal Protocol is considered the first international treaty to formally use the precautionary principle. This principle may have been responsible for its resounding success. Razman et all state that, “When taking into consideration what position the scheming of interests that promote the precautionary principle in decision to become a member-state of the Montreal Protocol, an outline of what prospective costs and benefits might have been perceived to take place as a result of becoming a member state is helpful”. In other words, the main motivation in negotiations leading to the Montreal Protocol was the financial and environmental concerns promoted by the precautionary principle (Sands, 1995).

The Montreal Protocol may have benefited from the implementation of the precautionary principle. But so too has the principle earned repute among global policy-makers as a result of the success of the Montreal Protocol. In 2012, UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon noted that, “The Montreal Protocol has demonstrated that fundamental principles – such as science-based policy-making, the precautionary approach, common but differentiated responsibilities, and equity within and between generations – can benefit all nations.”

In addition to spearheading the precautionary principle, the Montreal protocol also represents the first use of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Under this principle, developing countries, who have contributed less of ODS production and consumption, get a 10 to 15-year period of grace for compliance in addition to financial and technical assistance. A Multilateral Fund was set up to help developing countries comply. The Multilateral Fund was supporting 6,000 activities in over 140 countries to the tune of USD2.5 billion.

B. Ozone depletion: Causes and effects

Ozone is a rare form of oxygen (O3) existing in the stratosphere. Unlike the oxygen that we breath (O2), ozone has a very strong odour. Most of it is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere or stratosphere. Though ozone can be found all through the atmosphere, its highest concentration is found about 19 to 30 kilometres above the surface of the earth. This layer – the ozone layer – was discovered in 1913 by French physicists Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson. The ozone layer, is important because it blocks harmful radiation (UV) from the sun from reaching the earth. It absorbs between 93 and 99% of the sun's high frequency ultraviolet radiation or light. When this layer becomes thinner, more of this radiation can reach the surface of the earth, where it can cause wide-ranging damage to to living matter.

1) The discovery of CFCs and the threat to the ozone layer

The process of thinning the ozone layer is refereed to as ozone depletion. Massive ozone loss, especially in polar regions leads to what is often refereed to as the “ozone hole”. The term ozone hole is often used loosely to refer to any form of ozone depletion, no matter how small it is. Such usage “trivializes the problem and blurs the important scientific distinction between massive ozone losses in the Polar Region and the much smaller but significant ozone losses in other parts of the world” (Sivasakthivel and Reddy, 2011). In the 1970s, scientists discovered that a group of substances called chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) were responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer. To understand how, it is necessary to take a look at the process that leads to the production of O3.

When UV radiation from the sun hit O2 particles, they split up into single oxygen atoms. When a single oxygen strikes an O2, the “fuse” to form O3. This process is called photolysis and occurs in the upper atmosphere. Ozone in naturally broken down in the atmosphere by sunlight and natural chemical processes. Nature maintains a balance between destroyed and created ozone, so that its concentration is largely constant. But when this balance is disturbed, the destruction of ozone outpaces its production, leading to ozone loss.

The indicted substances, CFCs, are a variety of substances used in refrigerants, aerosol sprays and in the cleaning delicate electronic equipment. Invented in the 1920s, they also occur as bi-products of certain chemical processes. CFCs do not occur naturally in significant amount, so their presence in the atmosphere is largely man-made. When released in the atmosphere, they are neither washed back to the surface of the earth by rain, nor broken down in the lower atmosphere. But once in the stratosphere, the are bombarded by UV radiation and broken down, releasing chlorine and bromine atoms in the process. The free chlorine and bromine atoms can then destroy ozone through a variety of catalytic cycles. For example, a chlorine atom reacts with ozone molecule to form chlorine mono-oxide (ClO) and O2. ClO then reacts with another O3 molecule to produce another Cl atom and two O2 molecules.

Cl + O3 ----> ClO + O2
ClO + O3 -----> Cl + 2 O2

The overall effect is a decrease in O3. A single chlorine atom can continue destroying the ozone layer like this for up to two years, before it is removed from the cycle and transported to the lower atmosphere.

But CFCs are not the only substances that deplete the Ozone layer. The Montreal Protocol identifies 100 types of ODS.

Fig 1. Ozone cylce

2) Effects of ozone depletion: UV radiations and its suspected impact on man and the environment.

The very first consequence of ozone loss is the more than normal volume of UV radiations reaching the surface of the earth. The amount of UV radiation reaching the surface of the earth increases exponentially with the thinning of the ozone layer. In other words, any amount of ozone loss leads to a substantial increase in UV radiations reaching the surface of the earth. Since the ozone layer mainly blocks the sun's UV radiation from reaching the surface of the earth, the effects of ozone depletion is by implication the effect of higher UV radiations on the surface of the earth.

It is not exactly clear what the biological effects of higher UV radiations are. Even though ozone depletion has been linked with a potential increase in skin cancer, the scientific link between UV radiations and skin cancer is inconclusive. However, it is feared that higher concentration of UV radiations that those currently reaching the surface of the earth could have health consequences. In addition to skin cancer fears, studies have suggested a link between UV radiations and a form of cataract. Even this relationship between UV radiations and eye infections have produced different outcomes in studies that the evidence remains thin UV radiations could also increase the production of lethal levels of vitamin D in the skin. What is certain is that ozone depletion would alter the effect of UV radiations on life form, whether positively or negatively.

The more certain risk appears to come from increased ozone in the lower atmosphere as a result of UV radiation from the sum. Even though ozone is useful in shielding the surface of the earth from UV radiations, its presence in the lower atmosphere is actually harmful due to its strong oxidant properties. Other effects have been recorded in other life forms, such as sun damage in whales. Lastly, an increase in UV radiation could also affect crops, such as rice that depend certain bacteria that can be damaged by UV radiations.

Effectiveness of Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol has been been praised for being one of the most accepted and respected international instrument for environmental management. Broad compliance has resulted in the attainment of most of the protocol targets. But, it has also suffered a number of challenges.

A) Phasing out ODS and the positive strides

By the end of 2009, parties had phased out 98% of all substances controlled by the Montreal Protocol. The atmospheric levels of key ODS are also going down and it is predicted that they would reach the pre-1980 levels by 2050-2070. Thanks to the Multilateral Fund, developing countries had permanently phased out over 270,000 tons of ODSs by mid 2010 and eliminated virtually all production of CFCs and halon. Both developed and developing countries have reached their phase out targets ahead of schedule. The level of compliance, as already stated, has also been very impressive at over 98%.

Controls implemented under the Montreal protocol have enabled the global community to avoid millions of cases of fatal cancers, non fatal cancers and cataracts. The US, for example, estimates that by 2165, more than 6.3 million skin cancer deaths would be avoided in the US alone, leading to savings of about USD4.3 trillion in healthcare spending between 1990 and 2065. In 2010, the US also estimated that more than 22 million cataract cases would be avoided among Americans born between 1985 and 2100, as a result of the Montreal Protocol.

By imposing reduction targets on critical green house gases, the Montreal Protocol also delivers substantial climate benefits. The reduction in ozone depleting substances between 1990, when they reached peak levels, and the year 2000 has yielded a net integrated reduction of approximately 25 billion tonnes of CO2 weighted global warming gasses. These significant reductions make the Montreal Protocol one of the prime global contributors in the fight against global warming.

The effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol is demonstrated by its global recognition and participation. In 1995, recognition of the importance of the ozone issue and the contribution of science to ozone layer protection efforts came in the form of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which was awarded to Sherwood Rowland, Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen for their pioneering work on ozone depletion. In a related dimension, the Montreal Protocol in 2009 became the first United Nations treaty to achieve universal ratification, demonstrating the world’s commitment to ozone protection, and morenbroadly, to global environmental protection In addition, in 2003, political recognition of the Protocol came in the statement of the then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who termed the Montreal Protocol “perhaps the single most successful international environmental agreement to date”

B. Not all progress

Between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2009, developing countries had to eliminate the last 20 per cent of their production and consumption of CFCs and halons, and the last 15 per cent of their consumption of carbon tetrachloride. Trends however indicate that this final amount is the hardest to phase out, and this case is no different, particularly when we realize that the majority of the remaining CFC consumption is used for servicing millions of refrigerators and mobile air conditioners. While some projects have already been approved to deal with these sources, and others are still in the process of being approved, the phase-out of these remaining tonnes will not be easy to achieve.

Another challenge arises from the continuing success of the Protocol itself. Experience demonstrates that as the final phase-out approaches, the incentive for illegal trade might increase. This is particularly true in areas where continued production for non controlled uses is still allowed. Accordingly, the world community must redouble its effort to deal with this issue. The phasing out of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which also contribute to global warming, is likely to prove a huge challenge for both developed and developing countries. The final phase-out of these chemicals, which were a common but transitional replacement for CFCs, could require still more technical breakthroughs of the kind that were observed early in the phase-out process.

While much progress has been made to phase out the use of the agricultural fumigant methyl bromide, it is apparent that the final phase-out will not be easy and will require sustained effort from the global community. Finally, on the chemical side, it will become more urgent to find alternatives for the remaining use of halons in new airframes and military equipment as stocks of halons begin their inevitable decrease over the coming years.

Key questions also remain about how to deal, in an environmentally sensitive manner, with the very large banks of ozone-depleting substances currently in use systems or inventories. These substantial stocks will, unless acted upon, eventually be emitted over the coming decades. Finally, in relation to chemical controls, the Parties to the Protocol must be on the lookout for new chemicals with the ability to deplete the ozone layer, and new issues which could threaten the global communities hard won gains. In that regard, it is important to remember that many had believed the ozone issue to be solved by the original 1987 Montreal Protocol agreement, only to find a short time later that the threat was significantly greater than originally anticipated.

On the organizational side, the Parties also face an administrative challenge in ensuring that the significant national and organizational expertise built up to address the Montreal Protocol issue is adapted and retained to meet current and future needs. Indeed, the remarkable lessons learned under the Montreal regime with regard to both chemical controls and management, as well as their financing, should be used to meet the new environmental challenges faced by the global community.

While many challenges remain, it is hoped that the continuing efforts to protect the ozone layer will move forward in the same spirit of dedication, cooperation and innovation that characterized the initial efforts, and that the Protocol will go on to achieve its goal of protecting the ozone layer for this and future generations.


While the results of the Protocol to date are impressive, the fact remains that a great deal of additional action will be essential to ensure that the ozone layer remains safe for this and future generations. First of all, the Parties to the Protocol will have to maintain their momentum to complete the task. Yet, the Montreal Procol appears well on track in meeting its goal of cutting back ODSs and healing the ozone layer. The UN estimates that the ozone layer will recover over the next fifty years. In 2012, the UN Secretary-General Ban ki Mood said the protocol was “not merely a success in meeting its immediate objectives, it offers substantive lessons and inspiration in addressing other global challenges and turning them into opportunities for common progress”.


M. Rizal Razman, A. Samad Hadi, Jamaluddin M. Jahi, A. Hadi Harman Shah, Sham Sani and Ghazali Yusoff (2010), A Study of precautionary principle by using interest approach in the negotiations of the Montreal protocol focusing on the international environmental governance and law, WFL Publisher (

Sands, P. (1995), Principles pf global environmental law: Frameworks, standards and implementation, Manchester University Press

Sivasakthivel. T and K. K. Siva Kumar Reddy (2011) Ozone Layer Depletion and Its Effects: A Review, International Journal of Environmental Science and Development, Vol.2, No1, February 2011, pp. 30-37

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