The cooling sector is an important driver of climate breakdown – the greatest threat the planet faces today. The good news is that clean cooling can offer hope in the battle against climate change as alternative sustainable technologies exist and are increasingly being deployed.
Cooling lies at the nexus of three pivotal environmental agreements – the Paris Climate Agreement, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and the Sustainable Development Goals.Cooling needs and climate change are locked in a vicious cycle – as global temperatures increase due to climate change, more air conditioners and cooling appliances are deployed, driving greenhouse gas emissions and outdoor temperatures higher, exacerbating climate change. Between 2019 and 2050, the number of air-conditioners sold is projected to more than quadruple, with associated energy demand tripling.
Figure 1: Growth in air-conditioner sales and energy use
This growth threatens to jeopardise international efforts to mitigate other climate pollutants. Fortunately, the environmental impact of this demand can be managed by rapidly phasing out the use of HFCs and other fluorochemicals, improving energy efficiency, and deploying sustainable clean cooling solutions.
HFCs are super pollutants that generate huge amounts of warming over their short atmospheric lifetimes (on average 22 years). For example, HFC-134a, a popular refrigerant used widely in car air-conditioning and refrigeration, has a global warming impact 3,700 times higher than CO2 over a twenty-year time period. Deep cuts in HFCs are needed to tackle the climate emergency. Because of their short lifetime, action on HFCs is also critical to avoid near-term climate tipping points – positive feedback processes which exacerbate global warming.
Figure 2. Comparing the Global warming Potentials (GWP) of common HFCs over a 20 year and 100 year time frame
The Kigali Amendment to phase down HFCs mandates a global reduction in the production and consumption of HFCs of 85 per cent by 2047. If fully implemented, it will prevent up to half a degree of warming by avoiding more than 70 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050.
Coupling energy efficiency with the HFC phasedown can significantly increase the climate benefits.
Surging global demand for cooling offers an opportunity to ensure that only energy efficient HFC-free equipment makes it to the market, thus avoiding the risk of locking in climate damaging equipment for the coming decades and jeopardising international efforts to curb climate change and ensure human health and prosperity for all.
Energy savings from natural refrigerants and not-in-kind technologies continue to improve beyond expectations. Examples of rapid progress can be found in the commercial refrigeration sector where natural refrigerant technologies now outperform HFC-based alternatives, even in warmer climates. The largest overall energy savings will come from the air-conditioning sector, which is often the greatest source of electricity demand in warm climates.