Last week, far from the fog machines and live streams of the U.S. election, world leaders gathered in Vienna to finalize what could well be the biggest climate victory of 2016. In a deal that could be reached this fall, climate negotiators are amending the Montreal Protocol, the treaty that led governments to phase out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), so that it covers hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, as well. Although HFCs do not deplete the ozone, as CFCs did, they are the world’s fastest-growing greenhouse gas, with a global warming impact thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide. Eliminating their use would do more to reduce global temperatures in this century—by perhaps 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit—than any other available policy.
In short, these negotiations are big, and, if successful, could well go down as the most important climate deal no one is watching. Although toiling in relative obscurity can sometimes prove helpful to progress, especially on sensitive collective action problems like climate, the deal is not fully inked. The Obama administration deserves enormous credit for its steady progress in these negotiations, including a major milestone last month when the White House secured critical support from India (the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter and a major source of global HFC emissions in the coming decades). But it is now time for the world to take notice. As the deal’s few smart followers warn, there is a risk that, with such little popular attention, negotiators could fail to reach a deal that is sufficiently ambitious. And even the best deal is only as good as its enforcement and implementation, both of which typically require more public spotlight than the current negotiations have so far received.
The sharp rise of HFCs actually stems from the successes of the Montreal Protocol. Hailed as “perhaps the single most effective international agreement,” the Montreal Protocol went into force in 1987 and governed the gradual elimination of CFCs, a widespread ingredient used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays, which were
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