The Montreal and Kyoto Protocols, which initially came into force in 1989 and 2005 respectively, are two international agreements that had a profound impact on the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) industries.

The Montreal Protocol

The Montreal Protocol was primarily designed to eliminate the use of several types of halogenated hydrocarbons that have been scientifically linked to ozone depletion, including Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

The Montreal Protocol therefore introduced a timetable for the gradual phasing out of these substances, starting with CFCs, which previously were widely used in many HVACR products. Importantly, this agreement also established a framework for the recovery, reclamation and recycling of many refrigeration products.

Although the Montreal Protocol has been the subject of many amendments and alterations over the past 25 years, to date 197 countries have ratified the agreement, making it the most widely ratified treaty in the history of the United Nations.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was first signed in 1997, although because of its controversial nature it was almost eight years before its provisions became international law. Rather than limiting the use of harmful substances in manufacturing, the Kyoto Protocol is designed to reduce the collective emissions by industrialised nations of several 'greenhouse gases', including Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and sulphur hexafluoride.

It is now widely accepted by the scientific community that the increase in greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere is a contributing factor to global warming. By stabilising the concentrations of these emissions in the atmosphere, the 191 countries who signed the agreement aim to slow the rate of climate change whilst acknowledging the disparities in wealth, resources and industry between developed and developing nations.

The impact of the Protocols

The biggest success arising from these two agreements has been a marked reduction in the concentration of CFCs and HCFCs (and the chlorine they contain) in the atmosphere over the past two decades, thereby reducing the rate at which the ozone layer depletes. Nevertheless, current estimations are that atmospheric chlorine may not return to pre-1980 levels until 2050, and that the ozone layer itself may not recover until 2075.

The restriction on the use of CFCs and HCFCs initially saw the refrigeration industry turn instead to HFCs, which do not contain ozone-depleting chlorine and were therefore marketed as 'ozone safe'. However, they can potentially trap up to a thousand times more infrared radiation than carbon dioxide, thereby causing a much more severe greenhouse effect.

By 2015 the increased use of HFCs will have generated emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, thereby negating the successes of the Kyoto Protocol, and so there are currently discussions around eliminating the use of HFCs in refrigeration systems and other products within the framework of the Montreal Protocol.

It is therefore envisaged that, in the coming decade, the refrigeration industry and wider HVAC sector will move towards using more climate-friendly and sustainable alternatives to HFCs, including natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons.