By Rajendra Shende

In 1995, Professor Clayton Christensen wrote about the concept of ‘disruptive innovation’ in the Harvard Business Review. He described it as, “a process that takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established practices”. The idea has since moved beyond the sphere of business and entered the area of societal and environmental transformation.

Today, it means a process that disrupts established practices using game-changing operations initiated from the bottom for sustainable living.

‘Disruptive Innovation’ in Rwanda

Last week, delegates from 197 countries met to discuss the Montreal Protocol, a Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA) and put into motion a similar disruptive innovation. Interestingly, the innovation arose from an unlikely place and under the auspices of an unexpected organisation. While a majority of the recent innovations took place in Silicon Valley, this one came from the ridges of Africa. Specifically, it happened in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a country associated with the unfortunate genocide that took place when Professor Christensen was writing his famous paper. The organisation that initiated it was not one of the likes of Elon Musk’s Tesla, but instead was the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – an agency known for its glacial speed of responding to global crises.

The disruptive innovation stemmed from the fact that the Montreal Protocol was not originally sculpted to reduce emissions.

As dawn broke on 15th October over the breathtaking valleys of Kigali, negotiators agreed to legally binding commitments to reduce emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs). The disruptive innovation stemmed from the fact that the Montreal Protocol was not originally sculpted to reduce emissions. The delegates, however, were successful in leveraging the protocol and making it a ‘surrogate mother’ to deliver a revolutionary agreement. Never before in the history of MEAs or the UN has such a social and environmental innovation occurred that stems from the countries themselves and disregards the established UN practice of never-crossing-the-mandate.

What are MEAs?

MEAs are global treaties that aim to address environmental issues. Scientific postulations, the degree of economic impact and threats to natural habitats drive these negotiations. Conflicts usually arise due to differing abilities of countries to perceive the environmental crisis and unequal capabilities to deal with its impacts. This includes the transition to alternative policies and technologies.

The suspicion of the existence of a hidden agenda and general politics complicate the negotiations, making the process excruciatingly slow. Each agreement, thus, becomes confined to its mandate and countries zealously guard it to ensure they stay the same. The unfortunate truth is that even when a final agreement is arrived at, after extended multilateral negotiations, there is no assurance that it will be effectively implemented. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol is a good example of this phenomenon.

The Montreal Protocol: An exception

It succeeded in removing two million tonnes of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) that were being produced annually in the 1990s.

Signed in 1987, the Montreal Protocol is a rare example of what the UN is capable of achieving. The protocol negotiations were supported by irrefutable global scientific assessments. They were strengthened by the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, a precautionary approach and the ‘polluter-pays principle’. It succeeded in removing two million tonnes of Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) that were being produced annually in the 1990s. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigerators, air conditioners, hair sprays, insulating foams and more than 90 other ODSs were wiped out from the planet within a space of one generation. However, Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which constitute less than one percent of the total ODSs, remain to be phased out.


A historic social and environmental innovation was witnessed in the 28th meeting to the Montreal Protocol. | Photo Courtesy: IISD

According to an MIT study, the ozone layer has started recovering and should return to its pre-depletion level by 2050. Protecting the ozone layer prevents deadly ultra-violet rays from entering the atmosphere. Two million cases of skin cancer and additional cataract cases are already being prevented every year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, health-related benefits of the protocol are estimated to be around four trillion dollars in the US. 

A key factor in the protocol’s success is the Multilateral Ozone Fund that has operated for 25 years, without interruption. Developed countries have contributed over three billion dollars to the developing countries as technical and financial assistance. Furthermore, the protocol provided a ten-year grace period for developing countries to phase out the ODSs.

The Kigali agreement

The success of the Montreal Protocol was, however, not without a flip side. CFCs were replaced by ozone-friendly HFCs but these have a higher potential to contribute to global warming than Carbon Dioxide. Production of HFCs has been growing at a rapid pace of 10-15 percent per year in the developing countries. The rising middle class is able to afford more products such as ACs due to rising incomes. It is estimated that, by 2050, the contribution of HFCs to global warming will be as high as 20 percent.

The Paris Climate Agreement, which will come into force in November 2016, included HFCs as one of the six GHGs. But, it is far from being legally binding. In Kigali, countries decided to use the Montreal Protocol as a vehicle to phase-down HFCs. They went beyond its original mandate and accepted a legally binding agreement to mitigate the emission of GHGs. This should deliver the required reduction of 0.5 degrees centigrade by the end of the century, limiting the maximum total warming to 1.5 degrees. Currently, it is virtually impossible to deliver this reduction under the Paris Agreement.

Thus, valleys in Africa have demonstrated that the Silicon Valley does not have a monopoly on disruptive innovation. Furthermore, countries seemed to have learnt how to use successful protocols as effective surrogates to deliver workable solutions.

Rajendra Shende is a Former Director at UNEP and currently, Chairman of TERRE Policy Centre. He is an alumnus of IIT.

Featured Image Credits: Climate Home

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Posted by The Indian Economist