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In the spirit of the Montreal Protocol, let’s get down to work saving the planet

The following is an excerpt of a speech on the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, on Nov. 20, by former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

When I was very young, we went to the foot of Champlain Street, and swam in Baie Comeau, for which my Quebec hometown was named.

Today, there is a park where we used to swim. The waste from the paper mill created landfill, where once there were pristine waters. No one swims in the bay any more.

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And that's where my awareness of the environment, and the harm done to it, began. In Baie Comeau, I once said: "My father dreamed of a better life for his family. I dream of a better life for my country." Part of that dream was about leaving a more prosperous and united country to our children, but a large part of it was also about leaving Canada environmentally whole.

So I'm honoured and delighted to join you for this celebration on the 30th anniversary of the landmark Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, the only universal United Nations agreement, ratified by 196 countries and the European Union – more parties than any other international agreement in history.

The Montreal Protocol was the result of prioritized and pro-active leadership by Canada, the United States, some Nordic countries and UN leadership of both the developed and developing world.

From the perspective of our government, the environment was a priority from the day we took office. We knew we had to lead by example at home, and engage the international community on environmental issues that knew no borders.

At home, we established eight new national parks, including South Moresby in British Columbia, and our Green Plan put Canada on a path to create five more by 1996 and another 13 by 2000. Dr. Mostafa Tolba, when he was head of the UN Environment Program, called Canada's Green Plan "a model for the world."

We began the long-overdue cleanup of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence and Fraser rivers, and we launched the Arctic strategy to protect our largest and most important wilderness area – the North.

In Toronto in 1988, Canada hosted the first international conference with politicians actively present on climate change. Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland delivered a powerful keynote address, and Canada was the first Western country to endorse the historic recommendations of the Brundtland Commission, and the first to embrace the language of "sustainable development."

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In 1991, we signed the Acid Rain Accord with the United States, an issue we had been working on since taking office in 1984. I want to come back to acid rain as an important example of leadership and engagement.

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we helped bring the U.S. on board in support of the Convention on Climate Change, and we were the first industrialized country to sign the Biological Diversity Accord Treaty.

And then there was the Montreal Protocol, which a New York Times headline has called: "A Little Treaty That Could." Could it ever, as it turns out.

It has cut the equivalent of more than 135 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions, while averting the collapse of the ozone layer and enabling its complete restoration by the middle of this century. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has called the Montreal Protocol "the most successful international agreement to date."

The Economist last year called it "the world's most lauded environmental treaty." The New York Times reported in 2013: "The Montreal Protocol is widely seen as the most successful global environmental treaty."

Not only has the Montreal Protocol led to the elimination of over 99 per cent of ozone-depleting substances (ODS), it has also, as reported by the European Environment Agency, "avoided greenhouse-gas emissions by an amount five to six times larger than the target of the Kyoto Protocol."

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That's a huge valued added benefit of the Montreal Protocol.

Quite apart from eliminating ozone depletion and avoided GHG emissions, the Montreal Protocol, as our Canadian government notes, "has prevented up to two million cases of skin cancer and eye cataracts globally." The UN Environment Secretariat forecasts: "Up to two million cases of skin cancer may be prevented each year by 2030."

That also means uncounted billions of dollars of avoided health-care costs around the world.

And the question is, how did we get to Montreal, and how did we get the Protocol? And how, and why, has it been such an unqualified success?

In May 1985, British scientists made the stunning announcement that a hole in the ozone layer had appeared over Antarctica.

Originally, the Montreal Protocol was to reduce chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) by 50 per cent by 1999. Later it was agreed that all CFC production would cease by 2000.

The Montreal Protocol set a new standard for an international treaty.

As our lead negotiator Victor Buxton later wrote in a succinct review of the Montreal Protocol's distinctive features: "It put in place an international process for controlling all ozone-layer-depleting substances. It did this by providing both a short and long-term plan for addressing all of the ozone-depleting substances.

"It provided, within its own framework, an incentive for developing countries to join the Protocol without fear of additional economic hardship for having done so."

The inclusive framework meant that rather than limiting the Montreal Protocol to the 30-odd countries that made ODSs, everyone in the world came on board, 191 nations at the time, 197 today.

A quarter-century later, we have not allowed our lakes, rivers, streams and forests to languish and die. Acid rain is no longer an issue in protecting our environment and our quality of life.

The present government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, has also answered the call, beginning with the Paris Agreement in December 2015. The government is also phasing in a carbon price over five years beginning in 2018 – except for Quebec and Ontario, which have created cap-and-trade markets – while also approving the proposed twinning of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline.

As the Prime Minister said earlier this year: "Environmental protection and resource development go hand in hand."

Canada has the world's third-largest proven reserves of oil and we are not going to leave 170 billion barrels of oil in the ground. But we need to extract the resource and transport it to tidewater in an environmentally sustainable manner, and the energy industry in Alberta has already made significant strides in this regard and Canadians have the ingenuity to do the rest.

The science is incontrovertible, and the evidence is before our eyes every day – in the wildfires that have raged in the forests of Alberta, British Columbia and California, and in the hurricanes incubated in the warming waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico that have devastated Texas, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The United Nations weather agency says that 2017 is set to become the world's third-warmest year on record, behind only 2015 and 2016, when record temperatures were driven by El Nino. In other words, the last three years will go down as the warmest in recorded world history.

So while there is much to celebrate on this auspicious anniversary, there is much to be vigilant about.

In this, party or partisan lines should be minimized as much as humanly possible. We are all on the same side, determined to leave a better world and a more pristine environment to our children and grandchildren. It is the least we can do. In the spirit of the Montreal Protocol, let's get to work. Right here. Right now.

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