Sustainable, clean cold is the paradigm shift the changing world needs

Cooling is a vital foundation of our modern society. Without it, the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. As air conditioning, it is also the key enabler for the new urban global hubs such as Dubai. And of course, cold is essential for many super-critical technologies, as well as freezing and powdering materials for recycling and easy disposal.

In the developed markets – despite massive cold chains running food to our front door, buildings filled with air conditioning, and the volumes of data flying around from friend to friend or business to business – the demand is nowhere near saturation. In fact, the European Commission estimates that the EU's cooling needs will increase by 72% by 2030.

But on top of this, in the emerging nations the demand for cooling is about to increase multifold, driven by the growth in middle classes and their new lifestyles built on cold. The Asia–Pacific middle class is projected to grow sixfold to 3.2 billion in 2030; two-thirds of the global total, and its spending power could rise from $5 trillion to $33 trillion.

As one example: in China it is estimated that Starbucks will open a new store every 18 hours, while home delivery in the country means the cold chain logistics business is expected to grow into a $60 billion industry at the rate of 25% annually – e-commerce servicing consumer demand is a major driver of this growth. India projects it needs to spend more than $15 billion on its cold chain over the next five years, while the number of refrigerated lorries on the roads globally is expected to more than double to 9.6 million by 2025. This is in stark contrast to where we are today, with 40% of food currently wasted post-harvest, primarily due to poor cold chain, and 2 million people dying each year from lack of vaccines due to no cold chain.

Yet compared to electricity, transport and heat, cold has received very little attention in the energy debate so far. Neither the UK nor the EU has an explicit policy on cold. As a result, there is no joined-up thinking, let alone actual infrastructure, to capture, distribute and deliver cold efficiently in transport or our cities. While we see incremental efficiency improvements in cold technologies, we need a paradigm shift in order to meet future demand.

To be chaired by Lord Teverson and led by the Birmingham Energy Institute, the ‘Doing Cold Smarter’ Policy Commission is the first step in this process. With international experts from academia, NGOs and industry to attend workshops in the UK and in Asia, the Commission will explore how the provision of cold can be transformed through new technology; how cold infrastructure should be delivered at a national and international level; and how the UK can become a leader in the burgeoning clean cold industry.

This is an important opportunity. The next ten years of development in the reconfiguration of the UK’s energy landscape and the rapid building out of the energy infrastructure in the emerging markets requires an accelerated adoption of a variety of energy technologies. Many of these technologies will be a radical departure from the traditional methodologies. As we move towards delivering greater energy efficiency through new technologies in more integrated energy systems, there is a clear need to join up not just heat and power and transport, but cold as well.

But equally, with the right support this could develop into a large UK industry that simultaneously reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves air quality and replaces environmentally destructive refrigerants with benign alternatives – in the process generating thousands of new manufacturing jobs.

Toby Peters
Visiting Professor in Power and Cold Economy, University of Birmingham

Professor Richard A Williams
Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, University of Birmingham