UN Agency Urges Quick Shift to Environmentally Friendly Cooling

People cool down in the fountains of the Trocadero gardens in Paris on July 25, 2019, when a new all-time high temperature of 108.7 F hit the French capital. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

(CN) — Coordinated international action on energy-efficient cooling appliances could prevent as much as 460 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions — roughly equal to eight years of global emissions at 2018 levels — over the next four decades, according to a report by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency.

Improved efficiency and transitioning to more climate-friendly refrigerants are essential to achieving that reduction, the 48-page report states.

Countries can integrate these actions as they implement the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Signatories to the amendment have agreed to reduce the production and use of climate-warming refrigerant gases known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which could avoid as much as 0.72 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming by 2100.

“Nations must deliver massive cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions to get on track to limit global temperature rise this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit),” states Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program.

Global energy demand for air conditioning in buildings more than tripled between 1990 and 2016, from about 600 terawatt hours (TWh) to 2,000 TWh. This is equivalent to the total electricity consumed in Japan and India in 2016. Today, over 1.1 billion people are at significant risk from lack of cooling, which makes it harder to escape poverty, keep children healthy, vaccines stable, food fresh and economies productive, the report finds.

Cooling enhances comfort, increases worker productivity and students’ ability to focus and enables economic activities requiring cooling such as high-end manufacturing, operation of data centers and research and development.

Currently, 3.6 billion cooling appliances are in use globally. But with rising temperatures, as many as 14 billion devices will be needed to meet demand by 2050 — a 388% increase.

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will be concentrated in cities. The urban heat island effect — due to traffic, air conditioning, heating, and heat-absorbing surfaces — can make cities hotter than the surrounding countryside by around 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit or more on hot days and up to 21.6 degrees more in the evenings.

“The growing demand for cooling will increase global warming — from emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) used in cooling equipment, and from CO2 and black carbon emissions from the mostly fossil fuel-based energy currently powering cooling,” the report states. “A transition to climate friendly and energy-efficient cooling, however, would avoid these emissions and allow an increase in cooling access.”

The cooling sector includes both stationary and mobile space cooling and refrigeration, which are essential for food, health, thermal comfort and productivity, and industrial and commercial purposes.

The essential nature of cooling services is underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic, as temperature-sensitive vaccines require quick deployment while lockdowns forcing people to stay at home are a health concern in many countries.

“As governments roll out massive economic stimulus packages to deal with the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in efficient, climate-friendly cooling,” Dr. Faith Birol, executive director of International Energy Agency, said in a statement accompanying the report. “By improving cooling efficiency, they can reduce the need for new power plants, cut emissions and save consumers money.”

The agency estimates that doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioning by 2050 would reduce the need for 1,300 gigawatts of additional electricity generation capacity to meet peak demand — the equivalent of all the coal-fired power generation capacity in China and India in 2018. Worldwide, doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners could save up to $2.9 trillion by 2050 in reduced electricity generation, transmission and distribution costs alone.

Improving energy efficiency would also increase access to life-saving cooling, improve air quality and reduce food loss and waste, the report says.

The report lays out policy options that can make energy-efficient cooling part of climate and sustainable development solutions, including national plans to bring about climate-friendly cooling more quickly, minimum energy performance standards for cooling systems, and changes in building codes to promote environmentally friendly cooling methods.

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