Clean and energy efficient cooling can advance three internationally agreed goals simultaneously: the Paris Climate Agreement; the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and the Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals laid down a new challenge; economic and social development and the environment must live together; you can no longer have one at the expense of the other. Rather our aim has to be a world where everyone can live well and within the sustainable limits of our planet.

Cold sits at the nexus of this challenge but it has been almost ignored so far. And as Sustainable Energy for All points out “Given that millions of people die every year from lack of cooling access, whether from food losses, damaged vaccines or severe heat impacts, this is a glaring omission.”

The need for cooling is universal but cooling means very different things to different groups of people.

For those of us in the developed world it is about air-conditioned offices, hotel rooms, apartments, a fridge full of fresh food and convenience meals from all over the world; ice in our drinks.  In Dubai 50% of electricity is for air conditioning; 75% at the peak, and at certain times of the year 95%. In Europe more than 75% of our food goes through the cold chain at some point.

But subsistence farmers to slum dwellers equally have need for cooling but in very diverse ways and perhaps more life threatening: extending the life of crops while trying to moving them to market; ensuring access to basic vaccines; bearable or even just safe working and living environments.

Up to 50% of food is lost post-harvest in developing countries. More than 1 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty; more than 75 per cent of them reside in rural areas, primarily dependent on agricultural production.   Equally 800M people globally are malnourished.  Malnutrition is the largest single contributor to disease in the world, according to the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition. More children die each year from malnutrition than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.  

And a 2015 World Health Organization report concluded that 600 million people – almost 1 in 10 worldwide – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year.  Cold chain is key.

The consequences of food loss are far beyond hunger, farmer poverty and inflated food prices. Post-harvest food loss occupies a land area almost twice the size of Australia, consumes 250km3 of water per year, three times the volume of Lake Geneva; and emits 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.

The World Health Organization also estimates that nearly 50% of freeze-dried and 25% of liquid vaccines are wasted each year primarily because of broken cold chains.

Even though mortality from heat is episodic, heatwaves already kill an estimated 12,000 people annually across the world. The World Health Organization forecasts that by 2050, deaths from heat waves could reach 260,000 annually unless governments (primarily cities) adapt to the threat.

With populations growing, rapid change in demographics, continued urbanisation and climate change, we will need far more cooling. Forecasts suggest that the Asia- Pacific middle class will nearly triple by 2030 to more than 3 billion people, i.e. one-third of the global total population. Their increased affluence, changing lifestyles and aspirations will require ever more cooling: air conditioning for comfort; cold chains to support food preference changes and better medical care, and data centre cooling for the digital economy.

By 2050, according to the Green Cooling Initiative, there could be more than 9.5bn cooling appliances worldwide – more than 2.5 times today’s 3.6bn. Cooling, however, is energy intensive. Even with the development of more efficient cooling technologies and other more aggressive energy mitigation strategies, the cooling sector will, on current trajectory, increase its overall energy consumption by at least 90% to 7500TWh/year by 2050, up from 3900TWh in 2017.

This is however only half the picture.

Despite the significant growth in cooling equipment stock, under these projections, much of the world would still only have low penetration levels of cooling. Without ‘Cooling for All’, food and medicine loss in the supply chain will be high; food poisoning from lack of domestic temperature management will be significant; farmers will lack market connectivity, hundreds of millions of people will not have safe, let alone comfortable, living or working environments; medical centres will not have temperature-controlled services for post-natal care, etc.

As an indication of the impact of widespread global access to cooling, at the University of Birmingham we have looked at scenarios where the world has “Cooling for All”.  The number of cooling appliances rises to more than 14bn.  Even assuming accelerated technology progress projections delivering aggressive energy performance improvements, the energy requirement still equates to 15,500 TWh which is approx. 2.5x the 6,300 TWh maximum sector allocation envisaged by the IEA 2 degrees scenario.

To achieve the required amount of cooling within the energy budget available would require us to double the efficiency of our cooling devices on average, in addition to the technology progress proposed currently. Alternatively to “green” this volume of electricity would require more than 50% of the total projected renewables capacity for all demands from transport to industry to our cities under the IEA’s 2°C Scenario.

Although ultimately the actual detail of the numbers in a “Cooling for All” scenario will necessarily be different to some degree, given the quantum of the gap between current demand projections and those including “Cooling for All”, the conclusion is, however, highly likely to be correct.

Put simply we have a problem. How do we solve both the challenge of ensuring equitable access to cooling for all and mitigate the energy and environmental impacts? 

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is of course crucial to reduce the sector’s environmental footprint through the use of high GWP refrigerants (direct emissions). And given the projected growth in demand across all sectors, countries need to ensure that there is rapid transition to very low GWP refrigerants if we are not create a legacy problem.

But this year’s report of the UNEP Technology and Assessment Panel also reminds us that “more than 80% of the global impact impact of RACHP systems is associated with the indirect emissions generated during the production of the electricity used to operate the equipment (indirect), with a lower proportion coming from the use/release (direct emissions) of GHG refrigerants where used”.

We are seeing the development of more efficient cooling technologies. These are absolutely essential, but they alone and greening electricity, will not be enough to achieve sustainable cooling for all, let alone at costs fit for market.  

The Cold Economy is the development of cohesive and integrated system-level strategies to mitigate and meet cooling needs sustainably within our climate change, natural resource and clean air targets, while supporting economy growth. This involves understanding the multiple cooling needs and the size and location of the thermal, waste, free and wrong-time energy resources to define the step-change novel energy vectors, thermal stores and clean and energy efficient cooling technologies. Core to this is using surplus and free cold and heat.  For example, we should be far more efficient in how we harness the cold energy of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the free cold of lakes and rivers and the sea along with industrial waste heat and low-grade geothermal energy for cooling.

But meeting the challenge also needs the societal, business and financial models, policies and skills that will allow new fit-for-market approaches to be adopted and optimally integrated in a commercially sensible and technologically practical way with the different and dynamic cooling services and cooling loads.

In short, we have to transition from technology to system, asking a new question; no longer ‘how much electricity do we need to generate?’ but rather ‘what is the service we require, and how can we provide it in the least damaging way?’

The challenge now is to embed this approach quickly enough to avoid locking-in both direct (and indirect cooling emissions for years or decades. Of concern is that investment into cooling research in the EU/UK is less than 0.22% of our engineering research budget. Globally, despite the widespread need for sustainable, affordable cooling, only 0.1% of Overseas Development Assistance is spent on cooling.

Given the urgency and magnitude of the challenge and the multi-partner and multi-disciplinary research and delivery mechanisms required, to lead this work we need the establishment of a multi-disciplinary International Centre of Excellence for Clean Cooling to bring the global research and industrial expertise together to work together to develop the step-change pathways for achieving affordable sustainable cooling while meeting social and economic cooling needs …. in the timeframe available.

We also need much more awareness of the need for Clean and Energy Efficient Cooling. Cooling until now has not been on the agenda and there is still limited recognition of the critical role of access to clean cooling in our societal goals and energy and climate strategies. We need to rapidly reverse this “glaring omission”.  UNEP has uniquely pulled the world together to address the urgent issue of refrigerants. We now need to pull together the policy-makers, financiers industry bodies, research organisations and civil society into a cohesive community to deliver energy efficient Cooling for All.

Clean and energy efficient cooling has the rare potential to advance three internationally agreed goals simultaneously: the Paris Climate Agreement; the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and the Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment. In other words, it could address poverty, reduce food loss, improve health, raise energy efficiency, manage our natural resources, support sustainable cities and communities and combat climate change … concurrently.

Perhaps it is time for an 18th SDG – Cooling for All.

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