As anyone who visits Egypt between the months of May to September can attest, the weather gets hot, often uncomfortably so.
That is especially true in Cairo—a megacity home to nearly 22 million people—where the mercury can hit 40°C. Those sky-high temperatures are partially a product of the so-called ‘heat island effect,’ which sees buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s warmth more than natural landscapes.
Research shows that things will only get worse for cities due to the climate crisis. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that by the year 2100, many cities across the world could warm as much as 4°C if greenhouse gas emissions continue “at high levels,” – a potential health hazard for inhabitants.
With millions of people in need of air conditioning, it’s no surprise that so much of the power consumption in Cairo is related to cooling. “During the peak summer months, 50 per cent of the electric power goes to air conditioning,” said Alaa Olama, a UNEP consultant, the Head of the Egyptian District Cooling Code and the author of the book District Cooling: Theory and Practice.
Egypt is currently building 22 ‘smart cities’, making the country an ideal location for state-of-the-art cooling technologies, said Olama. Many of those efforts have focused on developing city-wide cooling systems that do not rely on electricity from fossil-fuel-fired power plants.
This is particularly important in the fight against climate change because cities contribute greatly to global warming. Rising global temperatures and warming cities create a vicious cycle where increased demand for cooling systems adds to carbon dioxide emissions that further contribute to global warming and create the need for even more cooling.
According to the International Energy Agency, cooling produces more than 7 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and these emissions are expected to roughly double by 2050. Amidst rising temperatures, the number of air conditioners in use is expected to rise to 4.5 billion by 2050 from 1.2 billion today.
To help break this cycle, UNEP is working with governments to adopt more climate-friendly cooling practices. For example, UNEP recently concluded a feasibility study on a district cooling system called the Seawater Air-conditioning system for New Alamein City, on the north coast of the country.
Here is how the Seawater Air-conditioning system works: Coldwater taken from deep in the Mediterranean Sea is pumped into a cooling station and passed through a heat exchanger, where it absorbs heat from buildings. Cool air generated from the cold water is used to maintain comfortable temperatures in the buildings, while the warm water is sent back into the sea.
Initially, the project would consist of a single district cooling plant to be built over two years, with 30,000 Tones of Refrigeration (TR) capacity, sufficient to cool entire neighborhoods. The Seawater Air-conditioning system is estimated to cost US$117 million in building production facilities and a further US$20-25 million for the distribution network.
With this cooling system, the city would reduce refrigerants emissions by 99 per cent and carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent. This is particularly important because these reductions will help Egypt meet its requirements to phase-down hydrofluorocarbon emissions established by the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This landmark multilateral environmental agreement regulates the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals called ozone-depleting substances.
Since many ozone-depleting substances also contribute to global warming, the Montreal Protocol and the Kigali Amendment – which provides for phasing down harmful greenhouse gases used in air conditioning, refrigeration and foam insulation – is expected to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of this century. This represents a major step in the commitment to limit global warming to below 2°C under the Paris Agreement.
The feasibility study to assess the potential for district cooling in New Alamein City will be published in late May 2022. It is expected to analyze whether it would be financially and technically viable to build a district cooling solution that would reduce or avoid using hydrofluorocarbons.
The study was initiated through the Multilateral Fund of the Montreal Protocol, and UNEP supported the development of an institutional framework. The efforts are being elevated through UNEP District Energy in Cities Initiative, which is taking the study to the level of execution.
UNEP’s support for the study is part of a larger effort to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that come with cooling.
In Egypt, UNEP’s OzonAction team is also supporting the development, update, enactment and enforcement of specialized nation-wide codes for ACs, district cooling and refrigerant management, as well as green procurement processes.
The UNEP-led Cool Coalition is helping cities in India, Viet Nam and Cambodia develop environmentally-friendly cooling strategies. It is also supporting the construction of networks of freezers, known as cold chains, that can hold everything from farm produce to COVID-19 vaccines.
The concept of using cold water to provide cooling for cities has taken root globally. For instance, in Canada’s largest city, Toronto, the local government implemented the largest lake-source cooling system in the world. Commissioned in 2004, Enwave’s Deep Lake Water Cooling system uses cold lake water as a renewable energy source. Similar large-scale projects have also been built in the United States and France.
This technology, which was pioneered in the West, has in recent years become popular in the East in the Gulf and Emirate States, which boast the greatest number of district cooling technologies. “It’s an important solution for new cities,” said Olama.
Hosted by Sweden, the theme of World Environment Day on 5 June 2022 is #OnlyOneEarth – with a focus on ‘Living Sustainably in Harmony With Nature’. Follow #OnlyOneEarth on social media and take transformative, global action, because protecting and restoring this planet is a global responsibility.