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Action on Cooling Heats Up

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Beijing ac by pedro guertler
Photo AC units in Beijing by E3G's Pedro Guertler

Cooling is central to human health and prosperity, ensuring access to nutritious food and safe medicines, enabling productivity and providing protection from extreme heat. Ensuring cooling needs are met affordably, efficiently, cleanly and innovatively, including for the 1.1 billion people who need it but lack access to basic energy services, is a significant opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions and support Sustainable Development Goals while strengthening resilience to a warming world.

The irony is that most cooling is heating up the world. Conventional, ‘active’ cooling such as air conditioning (AC) uses high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, and indirect emissions from electricity used to run cooling appliances contribute to overall GHG emissions. There are 1.6 billion residential air conditioners in use today. Most households in hot countries have not yet purchased their first air conditioner (AC), and ownership could rise to 5.6 billion by 2050.

Under business-as-usual (BAU) scenarios, the refrigerants used in conventional cooling technologies - usually fluorinated gases or F-gases - could account for nearly 20% of total GHGs by 2050. Phase down of current F-gases under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol – and its ratification by national governments – will make an important contribution to limiting global warming.

In major cooling growth markets, electricity is often generated with coal, meaning that increased cooling demand poses a serious challenge to reducing power sector emissions. Unchecked, demand for it could triple by mid-century to 6,200 TWh. This is the equivalent to over a quarter of today’s global power consumption and could require power generation investment of some USD3.2tn. Considering all unmet cooling needs, future energy demand could be more than twice this high.

The amount of residential AC load connected to the world’s power grids in 2017 – estimated at 100 gigawatts (GW) – exceeded that year’s record addition of solar capacity, some 94GW. On hot days, space cooling demand can stress power grids. Two summers ago in Beijing, AC contributed over half of peak power demand. This suggests unmanaged cooling growth challenges energy security and risks playing a significant part in keeping fossil-fuelled sources of electricity on the system.

Alternative approaches will have to play a bigger role, but conventional space cooling technology will continue to be significant. Therefore, who makes and who ‘takes’ AC and refrigeration equipment is of geopolitical importance.

AC production is concentrated in a handful of countries with China alone producing 70% of the global room AC market. China has made strides to improve stringency of national Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) for cooling appliances. However, many export markets often have no or lower MEPS or lack the capacity to enforce higher MEPS.  

As part of China’s plan for South-South cooperation on climate action, President Xi pledged USD 3.1 billion for climate assistance to developing countries, in part paving the way for the BRI Green Cooling Initiative focused on support for MEPS. With Ecological Civilization being a high-profile principle for President Xi’s domestic policy, the Initiative has a pioneering chance to influence and positively shape markets in countries along the ‘Belt and Road’.

A future in which cooling continues to heat up the world is not a given. At next week’s UNSG Climate Action Summit in New York, we anticipate an unprecedented, coordinated surge of activity in support of efficient, climate-friendly cooling. The Cool Coalition, a global network of national and city governments, businesses, banks and civil society is coming together to pledge real economy action on cooling. This is just the beginning.

In two months at COP25 in Chile, real economy action will take centre stage with cooling a prominent point of discussion as a key concern for Latin American and Caribbean countries who are experiencing first-hand the impact of warming on health, cities, agricultural productivity and tourism profits. With high demand growth concentrated in developing and emerging economies, the opportunity for development finance institutions to incorporate sustainable cooling solutions into infrastructure financing and investment has high potential for impact

Next summer at London Climate Action Week 2020, efficient, climate-friendly cooling will be recognized as a present and growing issue with rising temperatures in Europe and North America highlighting the need for climate-smart infrastructure and climate justice implications of cooling. In 14 months at COP26 in Glasgow, we can expect commitments from across the globe on efficient, climate-friendly cooling to support greater ambition of Nationally Determined Contributions due by then.

Action on cooling is not only important for achieving climate safety. Action also supports better health, higher productivity, trade and innovation, cleaner air, and enhanced energy and food security. To ensure cooling helps, not hinders, a climate-safe world we must leverage cooperation to achieve a greater collective impact. Next week’s UN Summit marks the start of a step-change.