To slow the pace of global warming, we'll first need to fix our air conditioning and cooling systems, says Dan Hamza-Goodacre
“Cooling technology uses super-polluting F-gases that can be a thousand times more warming than CO2“
It is hard to keep cool about the pace of progress in reducing carbon pollution and ensuring a stable climate. Scientific advice is loud and clear; protestors convey the sense of frustration that many of us feel; climatic disasters happen with greater frequency and intensity than ever before. Change is happening – it is just not fast, or consistent, enough.
A significant opportunity to reduce pollution lies in the cooling sector. Described as a 'blind spot' by the International Energy Agency, the sector is responsible for a double whammy in pollution terms. Cooling technology uses super-polluting F-gases that can be a thousand times more warming than CO2. At the same time, it utilises huge amounts of mostly fossil fuel energy – too often in an inefficient manner.
As the earth heats up, urban areas swell, disposable incomes rise and populations grow, especially in hot climates, the demand for cooling is booming. In 2018, total new solar capacity in the world (estimated at 100GW) was effectively cancelled out by total new demand for cooling (which exceeded 100GW). The number of air conditioners will grow from 1.6bn today to 5.6bn by 2050. This will use the combined current electricity capacity of the US, EU and Japan.
If this demand is met in an unsustainable way, the world's carbon budget will be blown. The good news is that efficient air conditioners and refrigerators with low global warming potential already exist. What's more, all countries in the world have agreed, through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, to regulate super-polluting F-gases. This could prevent up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century. All parties to the Protocol have opened up the opportunity to link this critical transformation to improvements in cooling efficiency – potentially doubling the climate benefits.
A big improvement in the energy efficiency of cooling could save nearly $3trn in energy costs by 2050, making cooling more affordable for the billions who need it every day. Cooling contributes significantly to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals – we need it for vaccines and medicine, to keep working conditions productive, to create comfortable shelter, to maintain the nutrition, safety and taste of our food and drink, to allow children to concentrate when studying, and more.
Progress to improve efficiency is also under way. Through the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, a philanthropic collaboration set up in 2017, policymakers in 27 countries are writing national cooling plans. Work is being done for more than 20 new national Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) to be proposed in the next few years for air conditioners and fridges. Banks are mobilising capital for cooling, and companies are creating cleaner, more efficient products.
However, there is no room for complacency. MEPS need to be commensurate with the climate challenge and deliver cost savings to consumers in the form of lower energy bills. They also need to be enforced. Cooling solutions need to be affordable and appropriate – not everyone needs an air conditioner. Good building design, appropriate behaviour and urban planning can go a long way to meeting thermal comfort needs. Without more thoughtful approaches, the 1.1bn people that Sustainable Energy for All estimates lack access to cooling, will continue to suffer.
Time for action
Why we need to improve our cooling systems
- 100GW - In 2018, total new solar capacity in the world (estimated at 100GW) was effectively cancelled out by total new demand for cooling (which exceeded 100GW)
- 0.5°C - The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol could prevent up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century
- 5.6bn - The number of air conditioners in the world will grow from 1.6bn today to 5.6bn by 2050
- 27 - Policymakers in 27 countries are writing national cooling plans through the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program
- $3trn - An improvement in the energy efficiency of cooling could save $3trn in energy costs by 2050
Dan Hamza-Goodacre, FIEMA CEnv is executive director of the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program.