From keeping medicines and vaccines useable to allowing food to be stored and transported over long distances, cooling technologies such as refrigerators and air conditioners have improved human health, productivity and prosperity over the past century.
A projected surge in their use over the next few decades, however, also poses a significant environmental threat.
Cooling systems now use large amounts of energy, and a growing number of them run on chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that can be thousands of times more harmful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.
With higher average temperatures and an expanding middle class globally, the world is expected to install more than 1 billion new air conditioners between now and 2030, and multiples of this by 2050.
In the Asean region alone, sales of the product are slated to rise to more than 10 million units in 2018, up from more than 6.5 million units in 2013.
“Without action, cooling could account for almost 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and put a strain on energy systems, limiting access to energy and the resultant benefits to the world’s poorest people,” says Dan Hamza-Goodacre, executive director of the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP).
K-CEP is a global initiative focused on clean cooling that is housed at the non-governmental US-based ClimateWorks Foundation.
The ASEAN cooling crisis
To help countries in Southeast Asia to transition to cleaner cooling methods, K-CEP, Eco-Business and UN Environment, a United Nations agency, are co-organising the inaugural Asean Cooling Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, on January 29, 2018.
The one-day summit will convene regional leaders to discuss opportunities in clean cooling as well as other issues such as the role of government in regulating the use of cooling.
Explaining the decision to focus on Southeast Asia, Hamza-Goodacre says: “The region has a tropical climate and is increasingly urbanising and modernising, so its demand for cooling is rising. Due to inefficient equipment, however, this increase in usage is exacerbating pollution, wasting energy and money and putting pressure on power grids.”
Many people in the region also still lack access to cooling, which is critical for worker productivity, health and education, he adds.
When Eco-Business recently surveyed about 300 people in Southeast Asia about their perceptions of consumer use of air conditioning, many of them observed that people in their countries have only limited awareness of the negative impact of air conditioning and the differences in air conditioner models’ energy efficiency.
Only one in five respondents said that people in their country are aware of the harm that refrigerant substances used in air conditioning cause to the environment.
Furthermore, half of the respondents said that air conditioners in public spaces such as malls, offices and cinemas are often set to temperatures that are too cold, wasting energy.
Mark Radka, chief of UN Environment’s Energy and Climate Branch who will be speaking at the event, notes that many Southeast Asian countries import their cooling appliances.
“Inefficient polluting appliances, which are also more costly to run, may enter these markets if appropriate and effective minimum energy performance standards are not in place. Mandatory standards are essential to market transformation as they specify energy efficiency and other environmental requirements for a product to be sold in the market,” he adds.
The Asean Cooling Summit is also taking place about a year after negotiators from nearly 200 countries, including those in Southeast Asia, reached a legally binding agreement in late 2016 to reduce the use of HFCs by 80 to 85 per cent by the late 2040s.
The agreement, called the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, will take effect from 2019 and is expected to prevent the emission of up to 105 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases.
This will help avert up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100. It also includes a review of opportunities for cleaner cooling.
An array of clean cooling options
Ahead of the summit, Hamza-Goodacre pointed to New York City in the United States and Ahmedabad in India as two cities that have done well in implementing clean cooling.
Both cities had developed plans to combat projected rises in the occurrence of heat waves.
New York City’s multi-pronged approach included infrastructural changes, research and outreach efforts to vulnerable people such as the elderly, poor and chronically ill.
For example, its Cool Roofs Programme trains local individuals to work with a team to coat city rooftops with a white reflective coating to reduce temperatures. It has coated more than 5.7 million square feet (529,547 square metres) of rooftop space so far.
Between 2007 and 2017, the city also planted one million trees in its five boroughs to reduce the urban heat island effect and mitigate against greenhouse gas emissions.
Ahmedabad’s Heat Action Plan 2017 also involves increasing the number of cool roofs in the city.
The plan notes that even simple, low-cost options such as a lime-based white wash, tarp-like coverings or white ceramic tiles can cut roof temperatures by up to 30 degrees Celsius and indoor ones by 3 to 7 degrees Celsius.
Other countries such as Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia are investing in district energy systems that use less energy to heat and cool buildings.
UN Environment has estimated that transitioning to these systems can help cities to reduce their primary energy consumption for heating and cooling by up to 50 per cent.
Hamza-Goodacre adds that building design, fans, shading, solar cooling, which is air conditioning that uses solar power, and behavioural change all play a role in clean cooling.
Singapore’s town planners are using urban environmental modelling to simulate wind flow so that they can orient housing blocks to maximise wind flow and natural ventilation, and minimise the need for electrical cooling.
The Eco-Business survey also pointed the way ahead for the Asean region.
“There are a few easy steps that the region can take to achieve better cooling efficiency. Adjusting temperatures in public buildings will bring immediate cost and energy savings. Consumer education on energy-efficient systems and their usage will also help,” says Eco-Business research director Tim Hill.
Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Development Programme, noted in a speech in September 2017 that the original Montreal Protocol spurred significant industrial innovation, resulting in more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly refrigeration systems.
He observed that the wide support that the Kigali Amendment has received from the private sector has also been impressive.
“Businesses are increasingly introducing alternatives to HFCs, in developed and developing countries’ markets alike… The gradual phase down of HFCs under the amendment could avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of global warming by the end of the century – making it one of the single largest opportunities to reduce emissions,” he said.