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Flats with air conditioning units on the outside
Professor Toby Peter's katest report considers, amongst other things, the energy implications of growing access to air conditioning

Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy at the Birmingham Energy Institute, discusses ‘A Cool World – Defining the Energy Conundrum’ – a new University of Birmingham report, set out to provide an initial indication of the scale of the energy implications of cooling for all.

Until recently, cooling has been a blind spot in the energy debate. It is now being recognised as one of our foremost environmental concerns. For the next 30 years, it is predicted that nineteen cooling appliances will be installed every second, however, even with this massive growth of the cooling sector, much of the world will still be without access to cooling, suffering the consequences: poverty, malnutrition, spoiled medicines, unsafe living and working environments.

A Cool World – Defining the Energy Conundrum of Cooling for all (PDF)’, a new University of Birmingham report, sets out to provide, for the first time, an initial indication of the scale of the energy implications of cooling for all - a scenario that would see ubiquitous penetration of cooling from cold chains to AC units. It also considers next steps to manage this within our climate change and natural resource limits.

Effective cooling is essential to preserve food and medicine. It underpins industry and economic growth, is key to sustainable urbanisation, as well as providing a ladder out of rural poverty. With significant areas of the world projected to experience temperature rises that place them beyond those which humans can survive, cooling will increasingly make much of the world bearable – or even safe to live in.

If we are to deliver access to cooling for all by 2050, our analysis suggests we could require fourteen billion cooling appliances globally - four times as many as are in use today as and 4.5 billion more than current global projections for 2050. This would see the cooling sector consume five times the amount of energy it does today. Without radical intervention, ‘greening’ this volume of electricity could consume the world’s projected renewables capacity in 2050.  Radical intervention means approximately 70% reduction in electricity usage for cooling. Optimistic projections produced by Green Cooling Initiative, the most comprehensive data set available, suggest approximately 30% may be possible, but with significant cost implications.

As we migrate from fossil fuels to renewables, it is agreed we require whole system approaches to energy. This must include new, efficient strategies for cooling which cost-effectively meet demand, manage the thermal peaks so as to smooth intermittent renewable generation as well as provide zero-emission temperature-controlled transport. Strategies should recognise the portfolio of available resources including free and waste cold and heat; incorporate technology, data connectivity and energy management, and consider the role of energy storage, as well as the specification of resource pooling protocols. We also have to design the novel finance and business models required to create economically sustainable systems for the subsistence farmer as well as the rich urban community.

We have inevitably had to make several assumptions and projections, and although ultimately the actual detail of the numbers in a cooling for all scenario (penetration levels, energy consumption, solution choices, etc.) might have some statistical dispersion, given the quantum of the gap between current demand projections, and those including cooling for all, the conclusions are, however, highly likely to be correct.

In developing markets, up to 50% of food can be lost post-harvest primarily because of lack of cold chain

  • More than 75% of the world’s one billion people living in extreme poverty reside in rural areas, primarily dependent on agricultural production. We cannot address rural poverty without cold chains connecting farmers to market.
  • 800 million people globally are malnourished. Malnutrition is in fact the largest single contributor to disease in the world, according to the UN’s Standing Committee on Nutrition. More children die each year from malnutrition than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. 
  • Postharvest food loss occupies a land area almost twice the size of Australia, consumes 250km3 of water per year, three times the volume of Lake Geneva, and emits 3.3 billion tons of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.

The World Health Organization estimates 25% of liquid vaccines are wasted each year primarily because of broken cold chains. An estimated 1.5 million people die each year from vaccine preventable diseases.

Heatwaves kill an estimated 12,000 people annually across the world. The World Health Organization forecasts that by 2050 deaths from heatwaves could reach 260,000 annually unless governments (primarily cities) adapt to the threat.

Productivity and thermal comfort are interrelated. By 2050, work hour losses in some countries are projected to be as high as 12% (worth billions of US dollars) in the worst-affected regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Please follow the link below to read the full report:

A Cool World – Defining the Energy Conundrum of Cooling for all (PDF)