Summer this year was the warmest on record. In a 1.5 ◦C world, it is predicted that over 1 billion of the world’s population will be exposed to severe heat waves at least once every 5 years. Annual excess deaths due to heat are already averaging at 500,000 in 2021.
As temperatures continue to rise, keeping people cool will not be a matter of comfort, but a requirement for survival. The demand for cooling systems is increasing, with research by the IEA finding that sustained average daily temperatures of 30°C increased weekly sales of air conditioners by 16 percent, and it is predicted that shipments of air conditioning units will triple by 2050 to 5.6 billion units.
However, today’s cooling systems are energy-hungry and inefficient. Currently, we’re trapped in a vicious spiral, whereby the systems we use to cool down directly contribute to the climate problem at hand. More sustainable methods of cooling must be enforced to ensure these soon-to-be vital systems don’t risk increasing the temperatures they’re created to reduce.
The cooling problem
Currently, the ozone-depleting refrigerants used in cooling systems, the energy inefficiency of these systems, and the overbearing energy demand they place on the grid all mean they’re complicit in worsening the climate problem.
Refrigerants enable the whole refrigeration process within a cooling system to work, yet HFCS or Hydrofluorocarbons, the most common refrigerants used in AC units, are potent greenhouse gases with up to 4,000 times the warming impact of CO2.
Furthermore, the average consumer will typically opt for AC units that are energy inefficient, despite the existence of best-in-class AC units. Selection is often based on price rather than efficiency, with people typically buying AC units with average efficiencies of less than half of what is available. This will only get worse as research by Sustainable Energy for All reveals that 2.4 billion lower-middle income will soon be able to purchase affordable cooling appliances.
As a result of the energy inefficiency and increase in demand for AC units, cooling systems already represent around 10 percent of global electricity demand. This is forecast to more than triple by 2050.
With such a high electricity demand, cooling usually correlates with peak energy demand and is therefore mainly powered by fossil fuels, feeding back to the climate problem that raises the temperatures that cooling systems seek to combat.
In addition, the air conditioning manufacturing industry is highly consolidated, with the majority of market share controlled by a small number of large companies. This results in high entry barriers, and so partnerships with these major companies will be needed to fully combat the cooling problem and facilitate change, ensuring that actions taken have a wide-reaching impact.
How can we solve the cooling problem?
Firstly, the ozone-depleting refrigerants driving the cooling process itself must be switched out for those with lower GWPs. Progress has been made, with the Kigali Amendment of 2016, committing 97 countries to cut the production and consumption of HFCs by more than 80 percent in the next 30 years.
Furthermore, the AIM Act, introduced in 2022, outlines the strategic approach of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to eliminate the use of high-GWP HFCs in new air conditioning and commercial refrigeration systems.
Widening the reach of such legislation and guidance to target all countries operating cooling systems will help to reduce the use of harmful chemicals. At the same time, the drive to switch to natural refrigerants, including CO2, ammonia, water, air, and hydrocarbons, must be elevated.
Alongside refrigerant transition, energy efficiency in cooling systems must be improved. If both steps are taken, we could avoid between 210-460 GtCO2e over the next 40 years, with energy efficiency improvements accounting for 75 percent of avoided emissions.
The IEA’s Efficient Cooling Scenario shows that policy interventions could improve AC efficiency and cut energy demand by 45 percent. The challenge lies in implementing energy efficiency requirements, and ensuring these are upheld.
To ensure success, policies and incentives must target the right people. The commercial market is the best means of targeting improved energy efficiency in cooling systems, given that commercial cooling users are more attuned to price and policy signals.
So, they are more incentivised to find efficient and less impactful cooling solutions, therefore creating better conditions for innovation. These technologies can then be introduced to the residential market.
Incentivising organisations and individuals to find better cooling solutions, such as Blue Frontier, is also essential to improving the problem. For example, the Indian government and RMI recently sponsored the Global Cooling Prize to identify solutions that were at least 5 times less impactful than the status quo. Making this energy-efficient technology more affordable will also improve its accessibility.
Even with more energy-efficient systems, it’s important that we balance the energy load they rely on. Distributing the energy requirements of cooling systems across both renewable and non-renewable sources can improve their overall sustainability.
Alongside this distribution, there’s a need for a stack of solutions - for example, technologies that improve energy efficiency in AC units must be combined with alternative refrigerants or refrigerant-free technologies in order to fully decarbonise.
In the long run, accelerating the transition to cleaner energy will further improve their sustainability, making more renewable energy available to power cooling systems instead of fossil fuels.
Ultimately, the fact our cooling systems today are actually making the world hotter cannot stand. Solutions exist to improve their energy efficiency, but people must take action — be that innovating or investing in new, more efficient technologies and the renewable energy sources used to power them, or regulating the refrigerants and energy used by the systems themselves.
Lead image via Adobe Firefly