Israel’s environmental watchdog honored by UN

Dr. Michael Graber: My hope now is that that climate change efforts will follow [the Montreal Protocol's] success.In recent years, Israel has acquired a worldwide reputation for its research prowess in clean and green technologies. But the country’s efforts in …

Dr. Michael Graber: My hope now is that that climate change efforts will follow [the Montreal Protocol's] success.In recent years, Israel has acquired a worldwide reputation for its research prowess in clean and green technologies. But the country’s efforts in environmental defense extend further than the workbench and laboratory. They go all the way to Nairobi!

Dr. Michael Graber, former deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Ozone Secretariat in Nairobi, was recently awarded for his contribution to the protection of the ozone layer in a September 16th ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol in a ceremony that took place in Montreal.

“The Montreal Protocol is a prime example of how diplomacy can help protect something as real as the environment,” Graber told ISRAEL21c after the ceremony.

Formulated over twenty years ago, the Montreal Protocol On Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer might indeed still be held as an exemplar of the ideal treaty. The first international instrument limiting chemicals harmful to the ozone layer, the agreement has attracted the support of 191 signatory nations, each of whom undertook to limit the production, consumption and use of ozone-depleting gases. As a result, to date more than 95% of such emissions have been eliminated globally, with recent final phase-out agreements requiring total cessation of emissions by 2020 for developed nations and by 2030 for developing ones.

Meanwhile, the depleted ozone layer – which in the eighties was one of the globes’ biggest environmental concerns – has slowly begun to heal itself, saving an estimated 20 million individuals from skin cancer and 130 million from eye cataracts by the year 2050.

Despite such staggering statistics, though, in Graber’s view his biggest achievements have also been the least dramatic. As the deputy executive secretary of the UN’s Ozone Secretariat between 1996 and 2004, and as executive secretary for two years from 2000, he was responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of the treaty. The lifelong environmental dynamo radiates enthusiasm for the capacity of words as well as widgets, advocacy as well as engineering, to change our world for the better.


“When I came the regime relied entirely on nations’ self-reporting, and was managed manually by the Secretariat’s legal officer,” he recalls. “I took over the duty of inventory and computerized the system. Now it’s a unique and comprehensive source of data on ozone levels.”

Because of this work, he points out, parties’ compliance with the treaty is now available in the public domain, not only making it possible for scientists to access a wealth of information online, but also encouraging nations to ensure that their targets are unequivocally met.

Such attention to detail has contributed to a level of endorsement unusually high in the world of international law. Under Article 10 of the Protocol, which provides for actions to help developing countries meet their ozone targets, multiple projects have been initiated, including technology transfer, financial support and training regimes benefiting nations such as Malawi, Pakistan and China. It is no surprise, therefore, that former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan singled out the Montreal Protocol for high praise, describing it in his Millennium Report as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

Graber, in a 2004 address, concurred with Annan’s assessment.

“The Ozone Treaty is widely considered to be one of the most – if not the most – successful international environmental treaties. In addition to dealing effectively with the problem it was set up to solve, namely, protecting the ozone layer by phasing out ozone depleting substances, it is serving as a paradigm and has provided the international community with a series of valuable lessons in the design and implementation of other multilateral environmental agreements”.

Graber, though, remains resolutely modest about his role in all of this. With a background in research meteorology, and continuing connections with Hebrew University, he began his career in Israel’s Environmental Protection Service, the forerunner to today’s Ministry of the Environment. Having already played a part in the Israeli delegation at the Montreal Protocol’s drafting, he thought he “may as well” apply for the Secretariat position. He soon found himself stationed at the UN Environment Program headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, for “nine wonderful years.”

Officially, Graber worked as an officer of the UN with no diplomatic representative capacity. “But people would stop me in the corridor and ask where I was from,” he recalls. “And they could never guess! It is unusual to succeed as an Israeli in an international body so unavoidably political.”

But politics, he emphasizes, has no place when it comes to protecting the world’s shared natural heritage. “The latest hot topic – climate change – has become an issue which is not exclusively scientific,” he notes. “Whereas Montreal always came back to a shared technical and scientific basis, and because of that it succeeded.”

Now working as an environmental consultant, Graber looks back fondly at his time at the Ozone Secretariat. “I am proud of our work with Montreal,” he says. “My hope now is that that climate change efforts will follow its success.”

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