Environment

As the world heats up, converting to energy-efficient cooling systems will curb greenhouse gas emissions

Key Points
  • A shift to energy-efficient air conditioning appliances could cut as much as 460 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the next four decades, according to a new report from the U.N. Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency. 
  • On the current warming trajectory, it's virtually certain that 2020 will be among the top hottest years in recorded history.
  • The number of air conditioning units globally is expected to quadruple by 2050, from 3.6 billion to 14 billion by mid-century.
Dirk Waem | AFP | Getty Images

As the world heats up, converting to energy-efficient cooling systems is a major way to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change, according to a new report from the U.N. Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency. 

A shift to energy-efficient air conditioning appliances could cut as much as 460 billion metric tons of global greenhouse gas emissions — or about eight years of emissions based on 2018 levels — in the next four decades, according to the report titled "Cooling Emissions and Policy Synthesis." 

Doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners worldwide could also save $2.9 trillion by 2050, just from reducing electricity generation and distribution costs, the report said. The IEA said an additional $1 trillion in spending over the next three years could increase gross domestic product by 3.5%, decrease global carbon emissions and create millions of jobs.

On the current warming trajectory, it's virtually certain that 2020 will be among the hottest years in recorded history. 2019 was the second-hottest year ever, capping off the world's hottest decade in recorded history. Six of the warmest years on record were also in the past decade. 

The number of air conditioning units worldwide is expected to quadruple by mid-century, from 3.6 billion to 14 billion. As a result, the Earth will need to use five times more energy for cooling than it does today. Electricity for cooling alone would account for more than 80% of the IEA's forecast capacity for renewables by 2050.  

"As governments roll out massive economic stimulus packages to deal with the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in efficient, climate-friendly cooling," said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA.

People play in the spray from the fire hydrant. At the 3rd and Spruce Recreation Center in Reading Wednesday afternoon June 24, 2020 for the first Wacky Water Wednesday.
Ben Hasty | Reading Eagle | Getty Images

"Higher efficiency standards are one of the most effective tools governments have to meet energy and environmental objectives," Birol said. "By improving cooling efficiency, they can reduce the need for new power plants, cut emissions and save consumers money." 

A disproportionate number of people who are low income or minorities currently don't have air conditioning in their homes, and a great deal of lower-income people who do have units at home can only afford less energy-efficient systems that are worse for the environment.

The problem is now exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic since public cooling centers are more difficult to access given social distancing restrictions — and dangerous since the virus can spread through the air. 

As countries invest in coronavirus recovery and create economic stimulus packages, the U.N. and IEA recommend in the report that governments implement plans to transition to efficient cooling to reduce the effect of climate change, improve air quality and reduce food loss and waste.

One way countries can transition to climate-friendly refrigerants is through universal ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement signed in 2016 to gradually reduce the consumption and production of climate-warming refrigerant gases called hydrofluorocarbons. 

The report also recommended that countries develop and implement minimum efficiency-performance standards and energy-efficiency labeling to improve appliances, as well as promote building codes that reduce demand for refrigerant and mechanical cooling.

"As nations invest in Covid-19 recovery, they have an opportunity to use their resources wisely to reduce climate change, protect nature and reduce risks of further pandemics," said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

"Efficient, climate-friendly cooling can help to achieve all of these goals," Andersen said. 

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