Montreal Protocol - caring for all life under the sun

The Montreal Protocol might just be our greatest weapon in the fight to reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions and combat climate change

Guest Post By Emily Stuchiner, 2019-2020 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Biology and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology

From a global climate change perspective, all three of the well-known greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), are “bad,” but in my opinion, N2O is especially fickle. N2O is roughly 300 times better at warming Earth’s atmosphere compared to CO2 and CH4. And, since its emissions come primarily from agriculture it appears to be a never-ending problem because agriculture will be necessary as long as we have people on Earth to feed. Yet, the majority of emissions reduction efforts tend to focus on CO2 (and somewhat on CH4). I would argue this is because there are currently more obvious solutions to dealing with CO2 and CH4 than N2O. And people, understandably, take the easy road! CO2 comes from things like cars and industry (e.g. power plants). Well, there’s a growing market for electric cars  (hello Tesla?!?!) and initiatives in place for CO2 emission reductions under cap and trade. CH4 comes from farts and we can just tell people to eat fewer beans . Kidding. However, CH4 does come from cattle and natural gas pipelines. While getting people to eat less beef is a complex social issue, there are initiatives in place .There are also efforts at the municipal level for cities across the United States to reduce CH4 leaks from natural gas pipelines.

But where is the low-hanging fruit for N2O? Another fickle element of this gas is that even though most N2O emissions come from agriculture, they can also come from a variety of terrestrial, marine, and aquatic sources, and N2O can be produced through a variety of biological and non-biological processes. This makes N2O harder to pinpoint and tackle than CO2 and CH4. Its sources are so broad that it can leave policy makers wondering where to possibly begin. But what if there was already a comprehensive, internationally recognized protocol in place that could adopt N2O and then mandate dramatic and multilateral action for N2O emission reductions from every nation on Earth?

Kanter and colleagues wrote an amazing article in 2013, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, about the potential of considering the stratospheric ozone (O3) regime as a method for managing N2O. The stratospheric O3 regime is part of the Montreal Protocol, which was established in the 1990s. The O3 regime was ratified by all countries in the world and is a legally binding contract to reduce stratospheric O3-depleting substances (don’t worry, I’ll give some examples in a minute!). Stratospheric O3 is an important molecule to keep around because it prevents harmful UV radiation from reaching Earth’s surface and harming life.  Part of the success of this Protocol, and I think part of the reason why every country in the world signed it, was that it allowed countries, based on financial status, to take more or less time to fulfill the requirements of the stratospheric O3 regime. Further, an international pool of money was used to assist countries that needed financial support to fulfill the regime.

In the 1990s, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were a far greater concern for stratospheric O3 depletion than N2O (think Jane Fonda and hairspray ), but because of the success of the Montreal Protocol, Parties (e.g. all countries in the world) did such a good job eliminating CFCs that Ravinshankara and colleagues claimed in 2009 that N2O is now the most important stratospheric O3 depleting substance in the 21st century ! Since N2O is currently the most important stratospheric O3 depleting substance, it is reasonable to consider the possibility of managing N2O under the stratospheric O3 regime in the Montreal Protocol, right?? Haha then why hasn’t that happened yet? In order for this to happen, all Parties to the protocol (every country in the world!) would need to agree to amend the Protocol and include N2O as a controlled substance. This would legally bind every country in the world to a commitment to reduce N2O emissions, which might be a tall order. After all, that would require all countries to decrease N2O emissions from all sectors, not just agriculture, but also industry and other nitrogen-intensive sectors (like the meat industry! ). However, unfortunately (or fortunately?) N2O doesn’t deplete stratospheric O3 quite as dramatically as CFCs do. This causes people to feel less compelled to take dramatic action, which I think is why managing N2O emissions under the Montreal Protocol hasn’t happened yet. But the possibility of what it could mean is riveting…

Most significantly though, I think, would be the precedent this could set for sustainable diplomacy: countries all over the world would be banding together in a unified mission to reduce N2O emissions to conserve a common public good, the stratosphere. Ideally this would motivate subsequent collaborative efforts among countries in the future to take on overlapping issues, like nitrogen pollution harming air and drinking water quality, and its adverse impacts on internationally shared resources. I recognize that international politics can sometimes feel like a nightmare and that collaboration can seem hard, if not impossible, but this opportunity is a plum, waiting to be picked, and the only thing standing in its way is the inability for folks to talk rationally to each other and get along. No sweat, right?

But seriously, maybe the allure of transnational cooperation should be stronger! Maybe we should be STOKED by the possibility of working on something that really can benefit everyone, when so often sustainable diplomacy does not . I think the potential of the Montreal Protocol should be brought back to the forefront. Just because CFC concentrations have gone down does not mean we don’t have other problems. Perhaps re-rallying excitement behind this Protocol, which was an incredible feat of international cooperation, would be the catalyst we need to get countries to consider adopting N2O under the stratospheric O3 regime. How? Well, I’ve just called the United Nations and they currently have me on hold…

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