Success Could be failure

Success Could be failure

Success Could be failureSuccess can create dangerous traps for near term failure – an overly pessimistic or even slightly sadistic view? Well, I would venture that the success to date of the Montreal Protocol may be leading into such a trap.

When I cracked  what many consider to be the world’s toughest competitive entrance examination to enter the Indian Institute of Technology, I lost a sense of urgency. During the graduation course that followed I basked in the past glory of my success in the competitive examination and entered a passive state that lacked the element of urgency and  “making it happen’.

The Montreal Protocol community (also fondly called the ‘Ozone Community’) is almost addicted to euphoric statements that the Montreal Protocol is the most successful multilateral environmental agreement in the history. They are right.  The United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Secretary Generals, reports on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals, and many prestigious journals such as Nature and Science as well as  numerous articles and books have showered praise on the Montreal Protocol. It is often then stated or implied that “success breeds more success” .

I beg to differ and suggest this is not necessarily so. Coming as I do from a corporate sector background, I know well the perils of success. The moment we feel that we have landed upon a secret that will lead to everlasting success, we tend to put ourselves in a state of lethargy and learn nothing from the success. General Motors and Lehman Brothers are good examples.

I recently browsed through the  book “Seduced by Success; How the Best Companies Survive the 9 Traps of Winning,” which examines  44 companies from around the world to illustrate the traps that success can spring.  The key mantra of this volume was that we have to constantly move, evolve, improve and innovate.

I spent last weekend with Dr. Steve Andersen , Co-Chair of the Technology and Economic Assessment Panel drifting and roaming like nomads around the forest of Yveline, on the west of Paris. We discussed if we, as proud contributors to the Montreal Protocol, were bold enough to state that all was not well with the Montreal Protocol – that all that glitters is not gold. Would we dare to write about the failures or likely failures of the Montreal Protocol?

The tempting thought is this:  we are  successful, so what is the problem?  The problem stems from the fact that potential seedlings for the failure become camouflaged in the onslaught of success. There are many issues and perhaps hidden stories that may in the future emerge as seeds of failure. 

During the 20 years of implementation of the Montreal Protocol we paid singular attention to ridding the worlds of  Ozone Depleting Substances. But cared little to reflect on if we were creating another problem by solving this one problem. We indiscriminately introduced HCFCs as transitional alternatives to CFCs. We even embraced HFCs, thinking that we were leapfrogging HCFCs! Today, more than 60% of the replacement of CFCs and HCFCs is made with HFCs, which are indeed ozone friendly but can more than 1200 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trems of global warming.

Industry had the ability to avoid HFCs all together. UNEP OzonAction provided the constant reminder that industry which in the first place created a problem was also uniquely placed to address it. Back in the late 1990s, OzonAction produced information papers that demonstrated the strengths of alternatives such as hydrocarbons  being ozone and climate friendly. OzonAction produced, for example, an compilation of innovative case studies entitled  ” Two Protocols one solution” . During the industry’s premier annual conference, The  Earth Technology Forum in Washington DC , we held round tables and brainstorming sessions to engage the developing countries  on the subject. UNEP opened new area of cooperation with Greenpeace who had similar thinking and was doing unprecedented work on promoting ‘green refrigeration’. But we were and we still are “siloed” by the success of the ozone friendly technologies. We continued to bask in these “silos” of the success. There was not enough incentive nor enough pressure exercised by governments to avoid the use of high global warming HFCs. We did not look beyond Ozone Layer protection.

Then came 2007. The ozone community started feeling the heat. The Montreal Protocol entered a reflective phase. It started looking at its weaker spots. It encouraged governments to adopt low Global warming and energy efficient technologies while implementing the Montreal Protocol. But the success still hung over us – the triumph associated with the elimination of CFCs was so strong that these intentions have in most cases remained only wishful thinking.

The important lesson from the Montreal Protocol is that you have never finished! The Protocol seems to have missed the boat when it comes to destruction of the CFCs that remain in old equipment. This problem is sometimes refered to as the “21 Gigatonne CO2-equivalent time bomb”. There is currently no provision in the Montreal Protocol to deal with this time bomb except to watch it slowly explode!

The success of the Montreal Protocol needs to be used as asset to embark on the next ‘big’ thing – the great challenges ahead. If we do not use this opportunity to innovate a transition into more energy efficient foams, refrigeration and Air Conditioning, we may well fall into a trap, the way the Lehman Brothers and General Motors found themselves.

Let us consider that success can be vulnerable. A successful model needs not only improvement but it needs continual metabolism.  In our rapidly changing world, people are always looking for the next big thing.

Pride of our success will make us prejudiced unless we innovate .


Rajendra Shende


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