Is the humble fridge the key to meeting the UN's Sustainable Development Goals?

The clock is ticking on the most ambitious set of international development targets ever conceived. By 2030, the UN’s Global Development Goals (‘Global Goals’) promise to banish hunger, poverty and inequality; ensure universal access to safe water, education, health care, clean energy and decent work; and secure peace, justice, economic growth and sustainability. Achieving all this and in the timeframe set will be a monumental challenge. What is not yet widely recognised is that one critical factor will be the development of clean cooling.

Until recently cooling was the Cinderella of the energy debate, but without it the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. Yet billions of people in developing countries live without cooling and suffer the consequences daily through hunger and ill-health.

The lack of adequate ‘cold chains’ of refrigerated warehousing and transport causes 2 million vaccine preventable deaths each year, and the waste of 200 million tonnes of food – with consequences far beyond hunger and inflated food prices. Food wastage 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 tonnes of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China. 

But this is just the start of the cooling pollution crisis. Demand for cooling is booming in fast growing economies such as China and India, largely driven by urbanisation and the rapid emergence of an Asian Pacific middle class, predicted to rise to 3 billion by 2030 – whose lifestyles will be built on cold. In fact, our demand for cold will outstrip our demand for heat by the middle of this century.

Life in many parts of the world would be scarcely tolerable without air conditioning. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates the global stock of room air conditioners will rise by an additional 700 million by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2050. According to another forecast, by the end of the century, global air conditioning will consume the equivalent of half the electricity consumed worldwide for all purposes in 2010.

But if cooling is vital, it is also dirty. One estimate suggests that refrigeration and air conditioning cause 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions – three times that attributed to aviation and shipping combined. The recent global agreement to phase out HFC refrigerant gases may restrain emissions growth a little, but does nothing to tackle the 75 per cent of cooling emissions that come from energy consumption

The climate will not be the only victim if clean cooling is not addressed. The transport refrigeration unit of refrigerated vehicles, the key to reducing post-harvest food loss, emit grossly disproportionate amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), the toxic pollutants that kill 3.7 million people worldwide each year.

So, as the world’s population heads to 9 billion by mid-century, increasing projected food demand by 60 per cent, there is no question that we will need far more cooling. We will need it to conserve food, water and other resources; tackle poverty, hunger, health and climate change; and underpin growth and development. But if the new cold chains, data centres and air conditioners are cooled with conventional technologies, we will only solve one set of problems by creating another.

That’s why clean cold is central to achieving the Global Goals. If food wastage could be halved through the development of clean cold chains and other measures, each year it would:

  • Save enough food to feed an additional 1 billion people
  • Reduce emissions by 1.5GtCO2, more than those of Japan
  • Conserve twice as much water as consumed by all the homes in the US
  • Avoid a massive increase in NOx and PM emissions from refrigerated transport, as the global fleet potentially quadruples in volume  

Our new analysis, Clean Cold and Global Goals, shows how the additional food would raise farmers’ incomes while calming food price inflation; reduce hunger and poverty; support rural economies; and ease pressure to migrate to city slums and the resulting potential for civil unrest. 

Not a bad day’s work for a humble fridge.

Professor Toby Peters, Visiting Professor in Power and Cold Economy