As more people start using air-conditioners and fridges in a hotter planet, energy efficient cooling devices are needed to keep greenhouse gas emissions in check and thus control further warming
In an unusual move in January this year, the Indian government instructed makers of room air-conditioners to ensure a default temperature setting of 24 degrees Celsius instead of 20-21 degrees. It also asked all commercial buildings to maintain air conditioning at that level.
This one measure alone has the potential to cut energy consumption in homes by a quarter and by 20% for businesses in the South Asian nation, said a report released last week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Energy Agency (IEA).
In a rapidly warming world, cooling devices like refrigerators and air conditioners are becoming more and more indispensable, but fossil fuels burnt to power these machines will worsen the effects of climate change, according to the Cooling Emissions and Policy Synthesis Report.
The essential nature of cooling services is underlined by the Covid-19 pandemic, as temperature-sensitive vaccines will require quick deployment around the globe, the report said. However, increasing demand for cooling is contributing significantly to climate change by emitting large amounts of planet-warming hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), carbon dioxide and black carbon from the mostly fossil fuel-based energy used to power cooling devices.
“As nations invest in Covid-19 recovery, they have an opportunity to use their resources wisely to reduce climate change, protect nature and reduce risks of further pandemics,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP. “Efficient, climate-friendly cooling can help to achieve all of these goals.”
Climate-friendly cooling could cut years of greenhouse gas emissions and save trillions of dollars, the report said. Over the next four decades, energy efficiency in the sector could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 460 billion tonnes, equal to about eight years of global emissions at 2018 levels.
There are about 3.6 billion cooling appliances in use now, the report found, a number that could rise to 14 billion by 2050. Curbing energy use of these appliances are critical to reaching the Paris Agreement goals.
The world can reduce between 210 and 460 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in the next 40 years by improving cooling efficiency and transitioning to climate-friendly refrigerants, according to the report.
Countries can institutionalise many of these actions by integrating them into their implementation of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Signatories to the Kigali Amendment have agreed to reduce the production and use of climate-warming refrigerant gases (HFCs), which has the potential to avoid as much as 0.4 degree Celsius of global warming by 2100 through this step alone.
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, as recommended by scientists.
“Higher efficiency standards are one of the most effective tools governments have to meet energy and environmental objectives,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA. “By improving cooling efficiency, they can reduce the need for new power plants, cut emissions and save consumers money.”
Doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioning by 2050 would reduce the need for 1,300 GW 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, the IEA estimates.
Doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners could save up to USD 2.9 trillion by 2050 in reduced electricity generation, transmission and distribution costs alone, the agency projected.
The 48-page peer-reviewed report was authored by experts under the guidance of a 15-member steering committee co-chaired by Nobel laureate Mario Molina, president, Centro Mario Molina, Mexico, and Durwood Zaelke, president, Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, the US.
Cooling action plans
The report suggested that countries must formulate cooling action plans to hasten the transition to climate friendly cooling and identify opportunities to incorporate efficient cooling into stronger Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement.
India announced a national cooling action plan in March 2019, becoming the first nation to produce such a document under the umbrella of the Montreal Protocol. The environment ministry has set four main goals in the proposed action plan — reduce cooling demand by 20-25% by 2037-38; reduce refrigerant demand by 25-30%; reduce cooling energy requirements by 25-40% by 2037-38; and train and certify 100,000 servicing technicians by 2022-23.
The UN report also calls for
- Developing minimum energy performance standards and energy efficiency labelling to improve equipment efficiency;
- Promoting green building codes;
- Reducing demand for refrigerants and mechanical cooling;
- Including integration of district and community cooling into urban planning;
- Improved building design, green roofs and tree shading;
- Spreading awareness to stop environmentally harmful product dumping to transform markets and avoid the burden of obsolete and inefficient cooling technologies; and
- Establishing sustainable cold-chains to reduce food loss, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce emissions from cold chains.