Cooling: hidden threat for climate change and the SDGs

19 October 2020

Adobe Stock espion Airconditioning
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Growing international demand for cooling is set to drive one of the most substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions in history – but the risks and benefits of sustainable cooling remain a global blind spot, according to research.

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, also provides a framework for achieving sustainable cooling for all.

"Cooling is essential to human well-being and health, from the food we eat, to the storage of medicine, to how comfortable and productive we are at home, school or the office," says Dr Radhika Khosla, senior researcher at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, and principal investigator of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Cooling. "The global community must commit to sustainable cooling, or risk locking the world into a deadly feedback loop, where demand for cooling energy drives further greenhouse gas emissions and results in even more global warming."

"Sustainable cooling has been overlooked, but it has transformational potential not just in the fight against climate change, but in improving people’s lives," explains Professor Malcolm McCulloch. "Extreme heat without cooling sees productivity suffer, leading to increases in poverty especially in developing countries. Cooling and refrigeration can enable women to undertake small businesses and reduce time spent on household tasks, contributing to gender equality."

Records show September 2020 was the warmest month on record worldwide. And, under current climate projections, three-quarters of humanity face health risks from deadly heat. To help alleviate this and other heat risks, the energy needed for space cooling alone is projected to triple by 2050 – the equivalent of adding an extra 10 new air conditioners (ACs) every second for the next 30 years. This would require electricity generation similar to that of the US, the EU and Japan combined.

Both this unprecedented rise in demand and the potential benefits of sustainable cooling are critical blind spots in sustainability debates. According to today’s analysis, cooling is not mentioned at all in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or in its 169 targets.

The research team examined thousands of peer-reviewed papers which showed conclusively that sustainable cooling would facilitate the achievement of all of the SDGs, from energy and sustainable cities, to gender equality and the elimination of poverty. This suggests that taking bold action on sustainable cooling would benefit not just the global climate, but will fundamentally affect people as well.

The study further shows how sustainable cooling cannot be addressed through a purely technological lens, and instead puts forward cooling as a system comprised of active and passive measures, with key social and technical components.

Taking account of the drivers of increased cooling demand, the study outlines a framework to help deliver sustainable cooling for all. It finds everyone, from individuals to businesses to governments, has an opportunity to contribute to sustainable cooling, and identifies five key levers of influence:

  • lifestyle choices and social interactions, including behavioural choices;
  • technological innovation, such as energy-efficient and affordable passive cooling;
  • business models, including company value propositions;
  • governance, including regulation design and implementation;
  • and infrastructure design, which shapes and enables different solutions for cooling.

The research further identifies cooling interventions that have considerable potential to enable sustainable development. These include the reduction of HFCs, chemicals used for cooling which are 10,000 times more potent than CO2 in contributing to climate change, and the opportunity for lifestyle change around cooling consumption. For example, the average US-American consumes six times more energy for space cooling than EU residents, and more than 28 times that consumed per capita in India.

"Large infrastructure projects have the power to lock-in sustainable or unsustainable practices for decades to come," concludes Dr Khosla. "At this critical junction in global economic development, including in building back better from COVID-19, there is a unique and fleeting opportunity to centre sustainable cooling for the benefit of people and planet."