When leaders gather this week for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) they will be urged to sign a pact to broaden access to a range of sustainable cooling services and technologies, a push that comes with 2023 poised to become the hottest year on record.
The Global Cooling Pledge, led by COP28 host the United Arab Emirates, is designed to make things like air conditioners, deep freezers and heat-dissipating homes more affordable, especially in developing countries, while reining in planet-warming emissions from the sprawling cooling sector.
Why? Cooling is already responsible for over seven per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and demand for cooling is expected to triple by 2050. That is troubling news for a planet on track to warm 3°C by century’s end, twice the most ambitious goals of the Paris Agreement.
“Many people aren’t aware that growing cooling demand is a major driver of climate change while also being so essential for human health, economic prosperity and food security,” says Lily Riahi, Global Coordinator of the Cool Coalition, which is lead by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “As we confront increasing heat stress and climate shocks, staying cool is ever more critical, especially for the most vulnerable.”
Here is an in-depth look at how the world can deliver sustainable cooling equitably and affordably and why the Global Cooling Pledge is important.
Why is cooling such a problem?
Cooling in itself is not a problem. In-home cooling brings huge relief to people amid rising temperatures and more frequent heatwaves, two byproducts of climate change. Through refrigeration, cooling is also essential for global food security and vaccine delivery.
But today’s mechanical cooling systems, such as air-conditioners (ACs) and refrigerators, are often energy-guzzlers and many use refrigerants that warm the planet. For example, R-410a, a common refrigerant for Acs is 1,430 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. New modelling from UNEP shows that between 2022 and 2050, under a business-as-usual scenario, cooling is expected to pump an additional 132 gigatonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. What is more, without new funding mechanisms, access to cooling will remain prohibitively expensive for billions in developing countries.
What is causing the growth in demand for cooling?
There are several factors. People are increasingly able to afford air conditioners – albeit often-inefficient ones. At the same time, the world is urbanizing, with many moving into poorly designed buildings and neighborhoods that trap heat, making air conditioning vital. On top of that, as scorching heatwaves become more common, people are increasingly turning to ACs. Refrigeration and cold chains have also expanded to transport fresh food to urban consumers.
What are the wider implications of a lack of access to cooling?
Almost 2.5 billion people do not have access to climate-friendly cooling solutions – the vast majority living in in Africa and Asia. A lack of cooling and high temperatures hamper economic productivity. Farming and fishing communities across the Global South lack the refrigeration and cold chains needed to improve their earnings.
A lack of cooling can lead to serious health problems, and even death, during heatwaves. Women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities are especially vulnerable to this. Cooling also strains power grids during hot periods leading to higher costs and, for many, frequent power disruptions, which are particularly dangerous during heatwaves.
So what needs to be done?
There are lots of solutions but they need to be undertaken in harmony to deliver quick wins for the planet. The priorities need to include reducing temperatures in cities and buildings through passive cooling, nature and better design; rapidly improving the efficiency of appliances and cooling systems; increasing the pace of the switch to climate-friendly refrigerants; and increasing access to cooling and cold chains. These changes underpin the recommendations of the Global Cooling Pledge.
But will those changes make cooling more expensive, which could be problematic for developing countries?
No. In fact, they can make cooling more affordable, including for the people that need it most. For example, over the decades, industry and governments have increased efficiency standards for appliances like ACs, fridges and fans. Alongside that, they have used efficiency labelling and other policy instruments to create a public appetite for more efficient equipment. Today, energy-efficient air conditioners are not necessarily more expensive than low-efficiency ones. What is more, energy efficient appliances mean lower energy bills for consumers – saving them money over time.
What about homes? If countries and cities were to pass laws to minimize the need for cooling, would that make construction more expensive and raise housing prices?
Not necessarily. Many passive cooling measures are low or no-cost, such as changes to building orientation and layout, use of natural ventilation and shading, and reflective paints. These solutions are life-savers for those that cannot afford air conditioning. Additional measures, such as better insulation, thicker walls and better windows, can cost more but their price is still low compared to overall building values. As the construction industry develops, the costs to improve the quality of buildings will also fall.
Taken together, these measures significantly increase comfort and save money for homeowners or tenants on their energy bills and increase the building’s value to consumers. Where costs are higher, financing models, such as green mortgages or means-tested grants, can improve their affordability.
Can sustainable cooling help governments save money?
Yes. At the national level huge cost savings and benefits can be achieved. Cooling uses significant amounts of power and in many countries is a major contributor to peak electricity demand. According to the International Energy Agency, the share of space cooling in peak electricity load worldwide is projected to rise sharply in many countries. A large portion of this can be avoided through sustainable cooling.
This could save trillions of dollars that can be redirected to lower power bills and support programs to enhance access to cooling for those in need.
Meanwhile, well-planned adjustments to neighborhood layout, building density and green coverage can reduce urban temperatures and bring wide-ranging benefits to cities. That includes bolstering water provision and sewerage, while improving public health and reducing air pollution.
How does the Global Cooling Pledge play into this?
Sustainable cooling can be affordable if governments take an integrated approach, one that emphasizes passive cooling, mandates energy efficiency and phases out damaging refrigerants while offering targeted financial support to vulnerable populations. This message is at the heart of the Global Cooling Pledge. The countries that sign on are signaling to the international community this is a priority issue and they are committing to making life better for all their people, including the least fortunate.
For more information on cooling, please visit www.coolcoalition.org
The 28th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) will be held from 30 November to 12 December, 2023 in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. It aims to drive action on climate change by reducing emissions and halting global warming. COP28 will explore the results from the first-ever Global Stocktake, which assesses progress toward the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to below 1.5°C. You can follow live COP28 updates on UNEP’s climate action feed.