While many of us have been enjoying a seemingly endless summer, with record temperatures being recorded across much of the world in recent weeks, the prolonged period of heat is also having some not so pleasant consequences. Countries across the globe have been struggling to cope with the record-breaking highs - on 5th July, Algeria experienced the hottest temperature ever reliably registered in Africa at just over 124°F – and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has warned of droughts, wildfires and harvest losses.
The extreme heat has also had a human toll, with lack of air conditioning cited as the cause of more than 70 deaths in Quebec. And the continuous struggle to keep cool led to power shortages in California, where record temperatures - 120°F in Chino -forced a surge of demand from air conditioners. But according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), while 90% of people living in countries such as the US do own an air conditioner, this compares to just 8% of the 2.8 billion people living in the world’s hottest regions. And with the world now facing the prospect of continuously rising temperatures, gaining access to air conditioning is now no longer being seen as a luxury, but a lifesaver.
A recent report by Sustainability Energy For All (SEforALL), an NGO affiliated with the United Nations and World Bank, states that 1.1 billion people across the globe lack access to adequate cooling, with nine countries facing "significant cooling risks", including India, Bangladesh, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, China, Mozambique and Sudan. “Cooling is not a luxury. It's a human right and a fundamental issue of equity that underpins the ability of millions to escape poverty,” said Rachel Kyte, CEO and Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary-General for SEforALL. “It's essential for everyday life. It guarantees safe cold supply chains for fresh produce, safe storage of life-saving vaccines, and safe work and housing conditions." However, as Justin Worland pointed out in a recent article for Time magazine, while expanding access to air conditioning and public cooling spaces seems logical, it poses a vexing paradox for scientists and policy makers alike, as air conditioners are also one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
As Worland writes, the IEA estimates that without government action, air conditioners will use as much energy by 2050 as China uses today for its electricity, which represents a threefold increase, and nations will need to build new power plants to keep up with increasing demand. He also explains that cooling products can contribute to climate change by emitting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which scientists claim could add nearly 1°F of warming to the atmosphere by the end of the century, nearly a third of the 3.6°F target enshrined in the Paris Agreement as the maximum temperature rise before the world feels some of the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The SEforALL report recommends that all stakeholders accelerate their innovation efforts and think more holistically about the way we provide cooling, focusing firstly on reducing heat loads and then thinking about how to deliver remaining cooling as affordably and sustainably as possible. And on the plus side, companies are already developing more efficient cooling technology, that is also HFC-free, and as Worland points out, in 2016 more than 170 nations reached an agreement which sets targets to phase out HFCs and reframe international standards on how to make air conditioners.
“The findings of the [SEforALL] report are a wake-up call for us all,” said Kyte, “and a call-to-action for government policymakers and industry to think and act more systematically about pathways to provide sustainable cooling that will benefit communities, economies and current and future generations. We need to provide cooling solutions that are clean and sustainable over the long-term."