It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lost in the Ozone Again

So Andrew Dessler forwarded comments from Ted Parson on the history of the Montreal Protocol, in response to a point in the recent Nisbet opus.

Parson's key claim (repeated here, on Deltoid, and recently on Grist) is:
Yes, the claim that Montreal Protocol was easy because there was a substitute in hand is simply wrong, and the detailed evidence showing why and how it's wrong is in my ozone book. (Protecting the ozone layer: science and Strategy, Oxford Press, 2003) This is one of the half-dozen major things that “everyone knows” about the stratospheric ozone case that are simply erroneous.
The crucial technological advances that demonstrated the viability of alternatives all came after, not before, the political decision to impose 50% CFC cuts -- and the effort to generate these advances was motivated by the imminent threat of these regulatory restrictions -- not the reverse. This is widely misunderstood and misrepresented -- not just by those who are careless with the truth, but also by many who have read or heard the contrary claim and remember it because it just makes sense given people's priors about regulation and corporate strategy.
Roger Pielke Jr. responds:
It is my view that Parson claims are way overstated. Consider that DuPont, the world's major producer of CFCs at the time with 25% market share had patented a process for manufacturing HFC-134a (the leading CFC alternative) in 1980 after identifying it as a replacement to Freon in 1976 and had applied for more than 20 patents for CFC alternatives immediately before and after the signing of the Montreal Protocol. Du Pont saw alternatives as a business opportunity, e.g., its Freon division head explained in 1988: "''there is an opportunity for a billion-pound market out there.'' The fact that ozone regulations focused on production, and not consumption, meant that there would still be a market for conventional CFCS into the 1990s, slowing down the deployment of substitutes, and making the transition easier for industry. Du Pont's decision to back regulation was motivated more by economic opportunity -- an opportunity that existed solely because of substitutes -- rather than exclusively about scientific arguments, though there is no doubt that the science played a role in the process.
If we are to believe this, then we must also conclude that the chemical industry, notably DuPont, started working on technological substitutes no earlier than 1986 and within 3 years had not only demonstrated their viability, but had done so in a manner that began to allow rapid deployment displacing conventional CFCs (see figure at the top of this post). If this was the case then the ozone issue was even more tame than we have argued in The Hartwell Paper -- it was in effect technologically trivial. If Parson's history is correct then it leads one to conclude that the ozone case is even less relevant to climate change than we have argued (unless one wants to advance the fantasy that decarbonization of our economy is technologically trivial, awaiting only the regulatory magic wand).

The most interesting response further muddies the question, if anything. Roger Jr. relays:
Received by email by a reader who wishes to remain anonymous:

"Parsons' account of the non-existence of an alternative to CFCs prior to the mandate would be news to those of us who had to lobby those issues back then.

Within the broad automotive industry lobbying groups, (I was an attorney working for an aftermarket trade association in 1987) it was widely known prior to the Senate vote on the Treaty that (a) CFC substitutes existed (b) they would be more costly and (c) probably would not perform quite as well in AC devices but that our industry would be able to tool up to handle the change, albeit without enthusiasm.

There was some talk of trying to seek a delay in order to improve the quality of the alternatives but that dissipated once Reagan decided to lead on the issue and support the measure.

If there were no viable CFC alternative known to industry (with catastrophic consequences for any and all economic activities that required refrigeration or cooling in the event of a ban) there is no way in hell the Senate would have voted unanimously to put the Montreal Protocol requirements into effect right away and, I suspect, no way Reagan would have moved so unequivocally to endorse the Montreal Protocol.

The idea that the technological substitutes only materialized later in response to a legislative mandate is utter fantasy. Dupont had already made them and their customers (manufacturers) knew about them and what was required to adapt to their use. Trade groups representing the aftermarket guys who fix auto air conditioning already had a dollar figure estimate for the impact on consumers and the industry well before the treaty was signed. The Senate knew precisely they were voting for not-quite-as-good but serviceable, still affordable alternatives when they voted for the treaty."
My observations?
  • 1) Unsurprisingly, public corporations always act solely in the perceived financial interest of their shareholders.
  • 2) Had it been the ozone layer vs refrigeration, refrigeration would have won.
  • 3) It wasn't.
  • 4) CFCs were very satisfactory. Replacements wouldn't be developed without political pressure driven by environmental concerns. Replacements wouldn't be implemented without regulation.
  • 5) At first, the replacement was expensive and inferior.
  • 6) Everyone seems to agree that there are lessons in the CFC story for the CO2 problem. The substantive disagreement seems marginal.


David B. Benson said...

Substitute for CO2?

For electric power production, yes.

Brian said...

Roger Jr's doing some strawmanning: Parson spoke of viability being demonstrated after the Protocol was signed. Roger claimed Parson said there was no work done at all prior to the Protocol.

All in a day's work for Roger Jr.

Michael Tobis said...

It seems more a question of emphasis to me than of any substantive disagreement.

EliRabett said...

There is a substantial difference between a process patent and a patent for the substance itself. Process patents are much weaker because if you can find an alternate route to the material, the process patent offers no protection.

greysparkles said...

In the arguement between Parson and Pielke the question would seem to revolve around the meaning of "existance" and "viability." As in the "existance" of a "viable" alternative technology. Does holding the patent for a refrigerant or the process for making a refrigerant equate with the existance of an alternative technology? Is a patented process the same as a fully engineered production process?

There is a difference between a chemist and a chemical engineer.

greysparkles said...

"CFCs were very satisfactory. Replacements wouldn't be developed without political pressure driven by environmental concerns. Replacements wouldn't be implemented without regulation."

That is the key point.

Michael Tobis said...

I take the lesson to be that breakthroughs sometimes do not happen without a regulatory push. I don't think that is the lesson that Roger wants us to draw.

But I am also struck by the narrowness of the actual distance between the two versions of the history given the vehemence of the argument. I have to count that as an unfortunate side effect of the general air of postnormalcy around our topics.

manuel "moe" g said...

Inspired by the Bunny, I am filing a process patent for "A Meaningful and Civilized Life with Zero Carbon Footprint utilizing Fig and Olive Trees". According to our esteemed friend RPJr, a post-carbon civilization will universally spring up in just a few months, thanks to the mere filing of my patent.

Those claiming the Garden of Epicurus as prior art are simply anti-capitalist enemies of intellectual property wishing to avoid paying my nominal licensing fees.

Grypo Saurus said...

I agree, the two claims being made aren't all that different and only seem to be contradictory when you choose words carefully or distort the other argument to the extreme outer bounds with which it can be used.

"Everyone seems to agree that there are lessons in the CFC story for the CO2 problem."

"Had it been the ozone layer vs refrigeration, refrigeration would have won."

The argument can be changed to:

"Had it been the atmosphere vs fossil fuel, fossils would have won."

But the argument is bigger now. If a small industry can defeat the Ozone, then the largest most profitable industry, which also fuels every other industry, should take out the atmosphere without much worry.

susan said...

blogger ejected me, testing ...

mt, thanks for the compliment elsewhere - encourage is welcome and needed, as I often feel bludgeoned over there and have to look again to see how they do it.

This is an excellent post, as always.

susan said...

aha, up and running. Love "moe"'s take.