Sustainable Cooling Is Essential to Saving the Planet

August 1, 2023
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Sustainable cooling solutions are available — but require much greater investment

Passive cooling vendor cart developed by Trane Technologies using a film that reflects sunlight to protect fresh produce from overheating and reducing the $75 billion in food loss. Photo credit: Trane Technologies

Air conditioning and refrigeration are increasingly seen as critical responses to the increasing frequency of heat waves and record high temperatures. Yet there is a conundrum: more demand for cooling requires more power and given the continued dominance of fossil fuels to generate electricity means more CO2 emissions. . .and hotter temperatures. Finding ways to meet the demand for cooling much more efficiently is thus one of the most pressing challenges to addressing climate change.

As reports by the UN body SEforAll and the World Bank explain, cooling is critical for multiple development goals including food security (food waste is enormous), health (cooing vaccines and health facilities), outdoor labor, and education. Higher temperatures reduce power plant and cooling efficiency, a threat to grid stability, and adversely impact some passive measures (e.g., killing trees). Heat kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined, and as climate journalist Jeff Goodell explains in his new book, The Heat Will Kill You First.

Heat disproportionately impacts those with lower incomes and the most vulnerable and the case is increasingly being made for universal cooling access as a human right. Many of the residents in some of the hottest places on the globe lack access to reliable power for a fan, much less an air conditioner. Of the more than 2 billion air conditioners across the globe, only 12 percent are in the hottest regions of the world. Sustainable cooling thus must be part of a “just and equitable energy transition.” Almost every part of India endures scorching temperatures for sustained periods but only about 12 percent of the population have ACs. As a result, the country’s demand for cooling is expected to rise eightfold between 2018 and 2038 — one of the fastest rates among major economies — as India’s population grows and as temperatures rise.

The increase in demand to power AC, much of it at peak times, is growing faster than additions of solar and wind power, undermining the clean energy transition required to reduce GHG emissions. The challenge is evident even in states like California with strong support of solar and wind power. The state recently postponed closing natural gas fired power plants to avoid the risk of blackouts due largely to the increased demand to power cooling but also partly due to more variable power supply.

Many cooling initiatives so far focus on cities and the challenge of urban heat islands, hotter temperatures due to buildings and pavement. Some cities including Miami now have officials responsible for heat response planning. Several noteworthy initiatives including the Arsht Rockefeller Resilience Center and C40 Cities are promoting community cooling centers, planting trees, and lighter pavement but often don’t reach the locations with the greatest poor and elderly populations. Lower income populations in more dense housing with fewer parks and trees tend to suffer the most.

However, as temperatures continue to rise and in some locations exceed human tolerance, there will be no substitute for cooling. Proposals have now even been made to make cooling a human right. This can only be accomplished without frying the planet if ways are found to make cooling dramatically more efficient. And as Jonathan Naimon from Sustana Cooling Partners notes, “technology is the sole lever to make cooling dramatically more efficient.”

Unfortunately, relative to more futuristic climate technologies like green hydrogen and direct air capture, recipients of billions of dollars of investments, very modest sums have been channeled to innovative cooling solutions. A recent review of finance for sustainable cooling by the UN organization SEForAll was able to identify several hundred million dollars in examples. In April, Bloomberg estimated that announced investments in EVs and battery manufacturing alone since passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 have exceeded $50 billion dollars.

The good news is that there is no shortage of ideas for innovative cooling solutions. The Clean Cooling Collaborative, an initiative with philanthropic support, is working to bring winners of a Global Cooling Prize with the promise of a five-fold lower global warming impact. The International Finance Corporation, the private sector component of the World Bank, received hundreds applications for support of early stage cooling technologies through its TechEmerge program. Universities are working on many promising approaches with support from the Department of Energy. Students in India came up with dozens of innovative cooling ideas as part of a Solar Decathlon.

While there is no shortage of potential solutions, the funding essential for development continues to be lacking. Promising startups, especially in countries like India with the most rapid growth in demand, have no where to go.

As awareness of the cooling challenge grows, more finance may follow. The Clinton Global Health Alliance is working on new business models and derisking instruments to drive investment in clean cooling technologies. NGOs like the UK based E3G are promoting dedicated facilities to help facilitate much greater investment in sustainable cooling companies and projects. The UN climate meetings this year in Dubai, COP28, will feature a dedicated cooling day. The UN Environment Programme and members of the Cool Coalition it brought together are preparing a major report on the status of cooling for release at the COP and asking countries to make a cooling pledge with actionable commitments.

Recognition of the importance of cooling in a hotter world is long overdue and finally appears to be happening. The true measure of progress will be whether the needed dramatic increase in funding follows.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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