Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Dr. Mostafa Tolba, Father of Montreal Protocol, Dies at 93

 Led UN Environmental Program in early years, guided ozone treaty to unrivaled success

28 March 2016 – Dr. Mostafa Tolba, father of the Montreal Protocol, died today at the age of 93.  Dr. Tolba was a brilliant Egyptian scientist and forceful diplomat who led the United Nations Environment Program for 17 years starting in 1975. “He knew when to push and when to pull and when to lock negotiators in a room until they found a solution to the planet’s early environmental problems,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.

“He was a wise leader who more than anyone is responsible for building the world’s most successful environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol,” Zaelke added. “This treaty solved the first great threat to the global atmosphere and put the stratospheric ozone layer on the path to recovery mid-century by phasing out chemical refrigerants that destroyed the protective ozone in the upper atmosphere.”  (The chemicals were known as CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons.)

“Dr. Tolba liked to say that the Montreal Protocol was a ‘start and strengthen treaty’, where the parties started modestly, learned how to phase out the damaging chemicals, and quickly gained the confidence they needed to do more,” said Dr. Stephen O. Andersen, also of IGSD, who worked with Dr. Tolba throughout the history of the treaty.

For the Montreal Protocol, this meant building a flexible treaty regime that was amended and adjusted throughout its history, making it stronger each year.  This was possible because both the developing countries and the developed countries have always considered the treaty to be fair.  Developed countries always phased down the damaging chemicals first, always expanded the suite of superior substitutes first, and always funded the incremental costs for developing countries to shift to the new substitutes after a grace period of several years.  The Montreal Protocol was and remains the only treaty ever to achieve universal membership.

Dr. Tolba helped kick off the modern era of the Montreal Protocol in 2007 when he supported the effort to strengthen climate protection under the treaty by accelerating the phase-out of HCFCs, or hydrochlorofluorocarbons, chemicals that replaced the CFCs—explicitly because the HCFCs were causing significant climate warming, as well as destroying ozone.

The earlier CFCs also caused warming, and by phasing them out the treaty provided significant climate protection as a collateral benefit of saving the stratospheric ozone layer.  But the climate protection was little recognized or appreciated, even though the early boycotts of CFCs, followed by national measures in a few developed countries, and then the Montreal Protocol, avoided climate warming that would otherwise have equaled today’s warming from CO2, which is more than half of the total warming of the planet.

Dr. Tolba also was an early supporter of phasing down hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, when they were first being introduced to replace the HCFCs. This included supporting the proposed HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol when he attended the Meeting of Parties in Port Ghalib, Egypt in 2009.

After nearly six years of further study and debate, the HFC amendment is expected to win approval later this year.  It will avoid the equivalent of up to 100 billion tons of CO2 by 2050, and avoid up to 0.5°C of warming by end of century—making it the single biggest piece of climate mitigation available in the near-term, and will continue the momentum of the Paris climate agreement, which will be formally signed 22 April in New York.

Dr. Tolba graduated with honors from Cairo University in 1943, and received a Ph.D. at Imperial College London in 1948. After UNEP he joined the Faculty of Science at Cairo University, where he established a school of microbiology.

UNEP’s press release is here.