Making air-con and industrial equipment more efficient will not meet the needs of the one billion people living without access to cooling
The first virtual New York Climate Week has begun, just days after confirmation of the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer on record.
Extreme heat is a growing threat for billions of people – and the issue of sustainable cooling is firmly on the agenda at New York Climate Week and other climate summits. This is no surprise; the energy and gases involved in mechanised cooling are a major driver of global warming. Ironically, our efforts to keep cool are creating a vicious cycle of extreme heat.
We can break this cycle. But to do so in a way that delivers true climate justice, we must change course – and refocus our efforts where they are needed most.
Most of the cooling events at New York Climate Week focus on making air conditioning and industrial cooling more efficient. This is essential work, but it will not meet the needs of the one billion or so people living without access to cooling.
Who are these one billion? They are families sweltering in overheating homes and factories, and farmers with no way to protect their harvests. Those who are least responsible for rising temperatures, but most at risk from its effects. Extreme heat threatens their health and incomes.
Funders and policymakers must urgently scale up sustainable cooling solutions for the most vulnerable. These already exist, ranging from solar-powered cold storage to building design that makes better use of shading and ventilation. In overheating cities, strategically placed trees and waterways can offer protection for all. Finally, there is a need to strengthen planning for heatwaves that put so many in danger.
Inclusive, sustainable cooling works. The Colombian city of Medellin has lowered outdoor temperatures by up to three degrees, through a city-greening project that also helps marginalised people such as those displaced by conflict find work. Ahmedabad in India has put in place a heat action plan that saves 1,100 lives a year, with measures such as early-warning systems tailored to vulnerable groups and affordable upgrades to slum housing.
The benefits of sustainable cooling are not limited to urban areas – it can also unlock crucial opportunities in rural communities. For example, India’s Promethean Power Systems have pioneered solar-powered milk refrigeration that allows farmers with just a couple of animals to sell to large dairies miles away.
So how can New York Climate Week help these bright ideas, and others like them, flourish?
This year’s shift to online events brings big challenges, but also allows participation from around the world. It’s time for the voices of the marginalised, those with no chance of hopping on a plane to join an in-person panel discussion, to be heard. Organisers of climate week webinars and workshops should make sure those living without cooling are well represented. Their insights and experiences are priceless.
The question of who holds the spotlight is crucial. Much of the cooling programme at New York Climate Week is driven by international companies keen to make the mechanised products they sell more efficient. Important work, but little good for those one billion most at risk.
We cannot simply engineer our way out of this problem. The cooling challenge reminds us that while markets and businesses have a vital role to play in tackling the climate crisis, in many areas other forces – such as government intervention and philanthropic investment – must take the lead.
In our struggle against the climate crisis, the most precious resource we have is the wisdom and ingenuity of frontline innovators and the communities they work with. In the build-up to COP26 climate talks, it’s time to put them centre stage.
New York Climate Week will be radically different this year but will still coincide with the United Nations General Assembly. That is one reason a powerful message on inclusive, sustainable cooling is so important. It is vital that policymakers make tackling this issue a key part of their national climate plans. Proven, high-impact solutions are out there – there really are no excuses.
With a renewed focus on the most vulnerable, climate summits can drive forward a fair and just response to rising temperatures.