Defining the future of cooling

Green, clean and lean air-conditioners, but with no access it is just mean!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report (2021) in clear terms attributed climate change to human activities and stated that many parts of the world are already experiencing its ill-effects. Lancet’s Countdown on Health Climate Change (2021), further substantiated the impact of extreme climate events by reporting that between 2018 and 2019 India had the biggest absolute increase in heat related mortality in the world. Empirical evidence from Kolkata shows that the city has warmed by 2.6°C relative to 1950, the highest among the cities sampled by the IPCC. The next in-line in terms of rapidly warming cities, stated another analysis, were Bengaluru and Delhi with a predicted +1°C rise in temperatures. 

For climate scientists, policymakers, and activists this signals urgent action – net-zero goals and targeted climate finance, among other such solutions. For an average citizen, this signals the need to purchase an air conditioner. Controlled, optimal indoor temperatures are an undeniable adaptation strategy, linked closely to health, productivity and ultimately economic development. 

However, here lies the challenge. With less than 10 percent of the households owning air conditioners today, India has been postulated to be a tremendous market for cooling appliances. However, India is already among the top 10 countries with the largest urban populations at risk from the lack of cooling; with more than 110 million people at risk. There is a heat inequity at play here – only some of us are likely to successfully adapt to the impacts of extreme heat. 

Simultaneously, there is the much talked about dichotomy of cooling – the more we cool our residences and offices, the more the planet heats up. When thermal comfort or more generally cooling is already an adaptation need, how can cities also make it a key sector for climate change mitigation?

Defining our cooling goals 

Global discourse around environmentally-responsible cooling had its inception at the Montreal Protocol, as a result of which ozone depleting refrigerants have been phased out by 197 countries. More recently, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol has countries phasing down potent greenhouse gases (GHG) used as refrigerants while simultaneous pushing for improvements in energy efficiency in cooling appliances. The Kigali Amendment has thus centred cooling as a key sector for climate mitigation and this in turn has given rise to variety of strategies. 

Today, there is acknowledgement among governments on the importance and need for cooling, especially under the popular rhetoric of ‘cooling for all’. Strategies such as green cooling, climate-friendly cooling, and sustainable cooling, to name a few, are being explored as potential ways to mitigate effects of cooling. However, a critical question to ask at this time is what these mean and whom they benefit.  

The first among these is Green Cooling which “requires the use of natural refrigerant and energy efficient appliances and buildings.” This strategy aims to reduce demand for cooling, and minimise the GHG emissions during the operational lifetime of the cooling equipment. A key feature of green cooling is that the demand for cooling is reduced through better building design and material use, thereby limiting the need for energy guzzling air conditioners for cooling. 

A slightly more reformed version of Green Cooling is Net-Zero Cooling, which looks to eliminate any carbon emissions from cooling. Net-zero cooling is defined in the Climate Action Pathway as “reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cooling during operational life of products (excluding resource extraction and manufacturing) to as close to zero as possible and any remaining GHG emissions would be balanced with an equivalent amount of carbon removal – for example, by restoring forests and through direct air capture and storage technology.” Net-zero cooling, like green cooling, as per the EIA’s recent analysis, focuses on natural refrigerants with minimal global warming potential. 
Both green and net-zero cooling place technology at the centre and aim to minimise GHG emissions from cooling during the lifetime of the appliance. They have been instrumental in promoting alternative, climate-friendly approaches like natural refrigerants, not-in-kind technologies, cooling as a service, district cooling, cool roofs, to name a few. At the moment however, mainstreaming these technologies and making them affordable comes with a slew of challenges, noted in our latest series of Policy Briefs on Green Cooling in India. Further, a recent analysis found that even with the most accelerated technology progress projection of efficient cooling appliances, in a ‘cooling for all’ scenario the energy demand for cooling is ~2.5 times the maximum energy we can afford to allot to this sector to keep temperature rise under 2°C.

How to avoid cooling for some and heating for others

A recent report by the Centre for Sustainable Cooling stated – “We urgently need access to clean cooling for all. In order to achieve this, we need to stop asking ourselves ‘how much electricity do we need to generate?’ and start asking ‘what is the service we require, and how can we provide it in the least damaging way?’” They further define ‘Clean Cooling’ as a means to “meet cooling needs efficiently and sustainably within the constraints from climate change, natural resource and clean air targets. Clean cooling necessarily must be affordable and accessible to all to deliver the societal, economic and health goals. It likely starts with mitigating demand.” 

The global discourse on cooling for thermal comfort has moved from being solely technology focused to acknowledging the humans who are likely to need access to it. The fact that the discourse on cooling largely has its roots in Montreal Protocol has often led to cooling being confounded with air conditioning. Whereas the fact remains that a majority of urban households in India rely on electric fans (>90% as per Census 2011-12). Given the aspirational aspect of owning air conditioners in addition to rapidly heating urban centres, the growing middle class is predicted to buy the least expensive and thus least efficient air conditioners in the coming decade. 

To avoid such a future, our developmental and climate policies, roadmaps, and programmes must not only address cooling as an important resource but also place the end-users as the focus of cooling strategies. Critical questions that such policies must address are: who will need to be prioritised and how do we prioritise them? how do we move away from cooling only affluent spaces? how do we finance such an endeavour? Discourse of this nature is vital to reinventing strategies, redefining goals and refining approaches.

This is the first of a series of five essays aiming to examine the essential elements of access to thermal comfort or cooling in India.

1. According to a report by the Centre for Sustainable Cooling – “Cooling for All, a hypothetical scenario is developed whereby refrigeration equipment penetrations globally converge by 2050 with those experienced in the developed world today (USA as the proxy), and air conditioning is made available to all populations experiencing more than 2000 Cooling Degree Days per year.” They further define cooling degree day (CDD) as “the demand for cooling a building. It is the number of degrees that a day’s average temperature is above 21° C in this instance multiplied by the number of days per year. China experiences 2,030 cooling-degree days per year, whereas the United Kingdom experiences 135. The UAE experiences over 10,000 cooling degree-days per year.”

Apurupa works as a research associate with iFOREST across the organization's initiatives on ‘Pollution & Waste Management’ and ‘Energy & Climate Change’.

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