After 15 years as the poster child for international environmental agreements, the Montreal Protocol has slipped into the relative anonymity of a well-functioning accord. As Kyoto Protocol negotiations grab headlines before even yielding a ratified deal, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are quietly on their way to oblivion, through unprecedented, concerted efforts worldwide.

That was some of the reassuring news coming out of Montreal earlier this month, during the 10th anniversary meeting of the committee in charge of financing the phase out of ozone-depleting gases in developing countries. Among other things, the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol approved World Bank projects to finalize CFC phase-out in four countries, ahead of schedule. Another success in the Hair Spray revolution.

But success notwithstanding, looking at the detail of what the fund is approving could make some eyebrows start to arch. During the meeting, the Executive Committee vetted 47 projects to replace CFC-11 with HCFC-141b, and 46 projects to replace CFC-12 with HFC-134a. Odd, considering HCFCs are also slated to be phased out by the selfsame Montreal Protocol. Odd, considering the Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions put HFC-134a on its hit list. High on its hit list: HFC-134a is 1,300 times more potent than CO2 in warming the planet. Odd, considering that non-ozone-depleting, non-greenhouse gas alternatives are readily available for the same applications. What gives?

HCFCs are touted as a “transitional” substance, necessary as readily available replacements for CFCs, but bad enough (10 percent as bad as CFCs in the long term) to warrant eventual phase-out themselves. Unfortunately, the 10 percent figure overlooks the short-term impact of HCFCs, which in the decade following release are 30 percent as bad as CFCs. It is during this period that ozone depletion will reach its peak. HCFC phase-out plans are also fuzzy. In the developing world, the phase-out is supposed to be complete by 2040, but no interim targets have been set. And as the Multilateral Fund pays for conversion to HCFCs, it makes it clear to recipients that the fund will not be responsible for a second phase-out later. Businesses in developing countries will have to shoulder that responsibility when the time comes. But will they be able to?

Unlike the interim HCFCs, HFCs earn a clean bill of health as “permanent solutions” in the jargon of the Montreal Protocol. This is because they have no ozone-depleting potential and thus fulfill the mandate of the protocol. This blinkered environmental view ignores the impact HFCs could have on global warming. Concerns about HFCs have led most of Northern Europe to adopt a refrigerator technology developed by Greenpeace ten years ago, the Greenfreeze, which incorporates an isobutane refrigerant that has negligible warming impact and yields improved system efficiency. Yet by 1998, only 18 of 311 projects financed by the Multilateral Fund used similar technology.

Many consider the long-term use of HCFCs and HFCs as the price paid in order to gain the cooperation of the chemical industry in the Montreal Protocol. Because these substances have more recent patents and are significantly more expensive to purchase than CFCs, the big chemical concerns like Dupont, Honeywell, and ICI Klea aren’t doing badly, even while losing business to other alternative substances. They’re getting rid of a product that permeated daily life worldwide for decades, while staying in business and earning environmental kudos — a major coup. But revisions to the Montreal Protocol establishing quicker HCFC phase-out dates, and the Kyoto Protocol’s inclusion of HFCs, have understandably put fluorocarbon manufacturers on the defensive, as they watch their remaining aces slip from their sleeve.

Phased-out and Confused

The significance of replacing ozone-depleting gases with greenhouse gases has long been recognized — and long been downplayed. Industry has claimed a kind of moral immunity from global warming concerns in exchange for agreeing to the phase-out of CFCs, which are also powerful greenhouse gases. That makes their phase-out all the more important — but then why replace them with other greenhouse gases, when alternatives are there? The relationship between ozone-depleting gases and greenhouse gases was the subject of a handful of heated debates early on in the history of the Montreal Protocol, leading to little more than a workshop and a resolution exhorting caution. Predictably, neither had much impact. Switching to hydrocarbons like isobutane could have had a huge impact, significantly reducing the greenhouse gas emissions problem. But conservatism about new technologies, and unwillingness to accept the additional expense of training and safety precautions, delayed their early adoption. As the years have passed, it has become harder and harder to consider alternative substances; markets are standardizing around fluorinated substances, and smaller enterprises that are interested in alternatives have even less money to buck the trend.

In fact, the questions about alternatives don’t stop with HCFCs and HFCs. There are foam technologies based on the toxic methylene chloride, and solvent replacements using trichloroethylene, recently linked to infertility in men. While both of these substances are accepted for industrial use, does the multilateral fund have a duty, as part of a United Nations environmental agreement, to undertake a more holistic review of their human and environmental impact? Shouldn’t U.N. protocols on ozone and climate work towards the same long-term environmental goals? To several multilateral fund donor countries, most notably the United States, the answer is a resounding “No.” For years, the U.S. has stymied efforts to give preference to non-fluorocarbon alternatives (coincidentally helping a powerful domestic industry) and has kept a firm grip on the reins of the protocol’s commitments, never letting them stray beyond the letter of the CFC phase-out deal, at the lowest cost possible.

The recent announcement in Montreal fits the pattern: complete phase out plans of CFCs ahead of schedule — what could be better than that? The attraction to the United States is clear: The commitment to finance phase-out needs to have a defined end-point. What replaces CFCs is a secondary issue. In fact, whether the replacement actually happens is a secondary issue, because once developing countries sign the finalization plans and accept the money, meeting the targets is their own responsibility.

It’s hard to be too disparaging, of course. CFCs are nearly gone in rich countries, and these same countries are footing the bill for eradication in developing countries as well. Replacement has turned out to be easier and cheaper than expected, and newer technologies are much more efficient. But many opportunities to incorporate multiple environmental considerations into current changes are being wasted, due to the rigid division of environmental issues. The interaction (or lack thereof) between U.N. protocols will undoubtedly be a hot topic at next fall’s World Summit on Sustainable Development. By replacing ozone-depleting gases with greenhouse gases, the Montreal Protocol provides a crystalline example of why that discussion is needed.