Montreal Protocol Acts As Surrogate Mother – OpEd


By Rajendra Shende*

Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School wrote in Harvard Business Review in 1995 about the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’. He described it as ‘a process that takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established practices’. The term disruptive innovation has since then gone beyond just the business and the markets and engulfed the whole gamut of the societal and environmental transformation. It is now termed as the process that disrupts the well-established practices by game-changing operations that move from bottom to the top of the society for sustainable and better living.

Last week delegates from more than 150 countries in international negotiating conference on the Montreal Protocol -a multilateral environmental agreement (MEA)- sparked such disruptive innovation at the unlikely place and under the auspices of unforeseen organization. It was not in Silicon valley of USA where majority of the recent disruptive innovations have taken place, but, hold your breathe, on the ridges of Africa in the city of Kigali-capital of Rwanda-a country-more known to outside world for the unfortunate genocide that took place at around the same time when Clayton Christensen wrote his famous paper in Harvard Business Review. And the organization was not one of the likes of Elon Musk’s Tesla, but an environmental off-shoot of United Nations, more known for its glacial speed of responses to the global crises.

In Kigali, as the dawn broke on 15th October over its high ridges heightened by breath-taking valleys, negotiators agreed under the Montreal Protocol to the legally binding commitments to reduce emissions of most deadly Green House Gases (GHGs). The disruptive innovation stems from the fact that the treaty under which the commitment was agreed was not originally sculpted to reduce emissions of GHGs. The countries, however, leveraged the Protocol’s form and function to make it surrogate mother to deliver not only name changing but also a game-changing operation for betterment of the planet. It has heralded disruptive innovation in the well-established practice in United Nations of never-crossing-the -mandate. Never ever before in the history of Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEAs) and even history of United Nations such social and environmental innovation had taken place that stemmed from bottom up from countries.

MEAs are global treaties that are negotiated with a goal to address the global environmental issues. Scientific postulations, observations, degree of environmental and economic impacts as well as threat to the habitat are the drivers for the global negotiations. Differing ability to perceive the environmental crisis and unequal capability to deal with its impacts as well transformation to alternative policies and technologies are the major stumbling blocks in the negotiations. The suspicion or the real existence of hidden agenda, mistrust and politics complicate the negotiations that become notoriously and excruciatingly slow. Each agreement is confined to its mandate and countries zealously guard it.

Worst, a final agreement arrived after long serpentine multilateral negotiations and compromises is no assurance for its effective implementation as amply exemplified by Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

The Montreal Protocol radiates exceptional success that stands out as one of the rare examples of what United Nations is capable of achieving. Copy-book style negotiations under the Montreal Protocol closely supported by global scientific assessments by top-notch irrefutable scientists were strengthened with principles of common but differentiated responsibility, precautionary approach and polluter-to-pay. Convened under United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Protocol signed in 1987 and entered into force in 1989 has succeeded in wiping out nearly 2 million tons of man-made ozone depleting substances (ODS) that were being produced and consumed annually in 1990s. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration, air conditioning, hair spray, insulating foams and fire protection, along with more than 90 other ozone depleting chemicals have been wiped out from the planet Earth within a space of one generation. Mildly ozone depleting chemicals-HCFCs (Hydro chlorofluorocarbons)-which constitute less than one percent of total ODS remain to be phased out. As per MIT-USA study there already are early signs that ozone layer has started recovering and likely to come to its pre-depletion level by 2050. The world has created an example of ‘ handing over the natural heritage to the next generation, in same state as was received from our earlier generation’.

By protecting the ozone layer and preventing deadly UV-rays, up to 2 million cases of skin cancer are possibly prevented each year, along with additional avoided cataracts cases as per UNEP. In United States alone, health related benefits of the Montreal Protocol are estimated to be more than USD 4 trillion, according to Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the key factors for the exceptional success Montreal Protocol has been the Multilateral ozone Fund has been operation consistently for last 25 years without even single interruption. Developed countries provided over USD 3 billion to the developing countries for technical and financial assistance to implement the Protocol. Protocol provided 10 years of grace period for the developing countries to phase out ODS as compared to the developed countries.

The success of the Montreal Protocol was, however, not without a flip side. CFCs were replaced partly by ozone friendly Hydro fluorocarbons (HFCs), which had global warming potential thousands of times more than carbon dioxide- commonly known GHG. Production of HFCs –mainly used as refrigerants in air conditioners (ACs) -has been growing at rapid pace of 10-15 percent per year in the developing countries as its large middle class is able to afford ACs as a result of rising income. It is estimated that by 2050 share of HFCs in global warming could be as much as 20 percent.

Paris Climate Agreement that is slated to enter into force on 4th November 2016 is far from being legally binding. It includes HFCs as one of the six GHGs.

In Kigali countries have decided to use Montreal Protocol along with its mechanisms as a vehicle to phase-down HFCs. They went beyond the mandate of the original Protocol and accepted the legally binding agreement to mitigate the emissions of GHGs. They expect the surrogate Protocol to successfully deliver much needed reduction of 0.5 deg centigrade of warming by end of the century bringing maximum total warming of 1.5 deg centigrade within reach. It is , as now evident, virtually impossible to deliver that under the Paris Agreement.

The countries also want to derive the benefit of more energy efficient and even super efficient air conditioners to save energy, save cost, reduce pollution and derive health benefit.

Valleys in Africa have demonstrated that Silicon Valley has no monopoly on disruptive innovation. Countries have now learned how to use successful Protocols as effective surrogate mothers to deliver super healthy child.

*Rajendra Shende is an IIT Alumni and former Director UNEP, Chairman TERRE Policy Centre. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]

South Asia Monitor

To create a more credible and empathetic knowledge bank on the South Asian region, SPS curates the South Asia Monitor (, an independent web journal and online resource dealing with strategic, political, security, cultural and economic issues about, pertaining to and of consequence to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. Developed for South Asia watchers across the globe or those looking for in-depth knowledge, reliable resource and documentation on this region, the site features exclusive commentaries, insightful analyses, interviews and reviews contributed by strategic experts, diplomats, journalists, analysts, researchers and students from not only this region but all over the world. It also aggregates news, views commentary content related to the region and the extended neighbourhood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *