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On thin ice: the political economy of cooling in a warming world

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Man stands on a balcony of flat block with air conditioning units. Photo by Michu Đăng Quang on Unsplash
Man stands on a balcony of flat block with air conditioning units. Photo by Michu Đăng Quang on Unsplash.

Cooling accounts for 10% of global emissions and demand for it is expected to triple by 2050. Yet sustainable cooling’s essential role in the net zero transition is often overlooked while today, one billion people are at high risk due to their lack of access to sustainable cooling. Successful mitigation of cooling emissions – while meeting cooling needs for all in warming world – is on the critical path to climate safety.

Globally, as climate impacts become more frequent and intense, more people will be exposed and vulnerable to heat impacts. Technical and policy solutions that rely on passive cooling design and super-efficient equipment with climate-friendly refrigerants powered by renewables will be needed to meet cooling needs for all affordably and sustainably.

However, sustainable cooling for all is also a political challenge affected by and affecting core national and international interests including security, health, trade, and prosperity. To achieve this goal at the speed and scale needed, action needs to be based on understanding the underlying political economy of how decisions on cooling are made and projected internationally in the context of the net zero transition.

E3G’s mapping of the political economy of cooling

This interactive report maps the political economy of sustainable cooling in China, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand – all major actors with respect to growth in cooling demand and the manufacture of cooling equipment. In each context, E3G investigated the national conditions, political system, and external projection that characterize the specific political economy of cooling, inform broader trends in the cooling landscape globally, offering overarching routes to impact for a sustainable cooling transition.

For example, how exposed and vulnerable a country is to heat risks may elevate cooling as a strategic sector for the energy transition as well other national priorities. Heat as a climate risk will be a contributing factor in driving cooling demand, which has significant implications for managing energy security. This manifests itself in two ways. The first is the increase of space cooling in total electricity demand. Increasing temperatures coinciding with greater purchasing power means hot countries such as Brazil, Mexico & India are forecast to have over 20% of total electricity demand dedicated to space cooling in 2050. This increase has major impacts for power generation and network capacity requirements.

The second is the impact of heatwave events, which can cause spikes in electricity demand due to increased air conditioning use. In April 2016, Thailand experienced a heatwave which caused record national electricity demand of over 28GW and all 14 southern provinces broke peak demand records. Power saving measures, including asking consumers to set air conditioner temperatures to 26°C were required. Such events are likely to intensify, putting increased strain on electricity grids. As governments and power companies try to meet peak electricity demand – including by increasing investment in coal and gas power generation, undermining a net-zero energy transition – consumers will face rising electricity costs. Despite these impacts, heat risks receive less attention – dubbed a ‘silent killer’ – than other climate impacts such as intensifying droughts, storms, and wildfire seasons.

Understanding the political economy of how heat stress is responded to, what sectors are prioritized, who makes those decisions and what factors – health, energy, agriculture, productivity – are considered is crucial to leveraging present and future heat risks for a faster, more affordable transition to sustainable cooling.

E3G’s political economy mapping of cooling in a warming world is part of a larger effort to support sustainable cooling transitions led by the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP) and their grantees working to enhance cooling policy in countries around the world. Political economy is inherently dynamic, and this interactive report should be considered as a snapshot in time.

To learn more and engage with the political economy of cooling further, click here.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following people that reviewed and gave comments on the political economy of cooling interactive report which was authored by Larissa Gross, James Hawkins, Pedro Guertler, Dileimy Orozco, Sindra Sharma-Kushal, Nathan Lawson, and Melissa Martin.

We extend our thanks to our partners in key cooling geographies who took the time to share their work and perspectives on the sustainable cooling transition.

We would also like to thank present and past E3G staff, including Shane Tomlinson, Dido Gompertz, Anna Glasser, and Tina Marchand. This page builds on almost three years of hard work including reports on Building back better: How climate-friendly cooling can support a clean, resilient Covid-19 recovery and Cool development banks: Rising to the challenge of cooling a warming world.

The authors are wholly responsible for all content and any errors or omissions contained therein.

E3G would like to thank the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP) for their valuable support for this research.

Explore the E3G political economy of cooling visualizations here.

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