Rich and poor nations yesterday agreed, for the first time, to make big cuts in pollution in order to fight global warming. And the Bush administration, which has consistently sought to sabotage international action to combat climate change, helped to lead the way.
Governments and environmentalists are hoping this weekend that the apparently incredible breakthrough will set the stage for a new onslaught on the heating-up of the planet.
On Tuesday, the new UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is hosting a meeting of 70 government heads to try to kick-start an international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when its present provisions expire in 2012. On Thursday and Friday President George Bush will hold his own international meeting on the issue.
Yesterday's little-expected breakthrough, which was foreshadowed in last week's Independent on Sunday, is expected to do more than the Kyoto agreement to slow down global warming. It came after negotiations – under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) – on strengthening another treaty, the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer, first agreed exactly 20 years ago.
Negotiators from 190 countries agreed to accelerate the banning of hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), used in refrigeration and air-conditioning. These damage the Earth's ozone layer, which shields the planet from the sun's harmful ultra-violet rays. But HCFCs are even more dangerous as greenhouse gases, up to 1,700 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in warming up the planet.
Under the protocol's existing provisions, the HCFCs were due to be phased out by 2030 in rich countries, and by 2040 in poor ones, but at last week's meeting negotiators accepted a proposal – put forward by the Bush administration – to bring both deadlines forward by a decade.
Although the measure will help to heal the ozone layer faster, its main intention is to combat global warming.
The accelerated phase-out is estimated to be the equivalent of cutting carbon-dioxide emissions by up to 25 billion tonnes over the coming decades. This compares with the two million tonnes a year due to be saved by the Kyoto Protocol between 2008 and 2012 if, as seems unlikely, its targets are met.
It also involves both rich and poor countries agreeing targets to cut emissions, something that has not yet happened under any other climate-change agreement – and is one of the main bones of contention over Kyoto. China, which produces most HCFCs, has had to make particular sacrifices.
The breakthrough is a triumph for Achim Steiner, Unep's executive director, who did much to bring it about. He said yesterday: "Historic is an often over-used word, but not in the case of this agreement. Governments had a golden opportunity to deal with the twin challenges of climate change and protecting the ozone layer – and governments took it."
Even before yesterday's breakthrough, the Montreal Protocol was seen as the most effective environmental treaty. Agreed shortly after the discovery of the ozone hole above Antarctica, it has already phased out almost all of the chemicals primarily responsible – the chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs once used in aerosol sprays and refrigeration.
This is expected to prevent 6.3 million deaths from skin cancer in the United States alone. But the biggest benefit has been an unintended one, in combating global warming, since the CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases.
Scientists in the Netherlands and in the US concluded earlier this year that, by the end of this decade, the Montreal treaty will have done more than five times more to counteract climate change than Kyoto.
Professor Mario Molina, one of the first scientists to discover the threat to the ozone layer, says this has delayed warming by 12 years, and may have kept the world from "passing the 'tipping point' for abrupt and irreversible climate change".
Yesterday's agreement on HCFCs, which replaced CFCs, will do even more – but governments and environmentalists caution that it will be no substitute for tough action over the next two years to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, primarily from the burning of oil, gas and coal. This remains the main cause of climate change, but Mr Bush is still resisting growing pressure for action both in the US and from overseas.
David Doniger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yesterday that "the Bush administration deserves credit for working with other countries to push for faster cuts in HCFCs". But he added: "This is the tail. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is the dog."
Further reading: 'Action on Ozone', published by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep)Reuse content