Current cooling technologies, such as air-conditioning and refrigeration, rely on human-made F-gases that are almost 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. Left unchecked, F-gases could account for nearly 20 percent of climate pollution by 2050, which is why the F-gas phase down of Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is such an historic agreement. Cooling also uses huge amounts of energy, often fossil fuels, and is therefore a critical carbon emissions reduction challenge.
Human-caused climate change is increasing global mean temperatures as well as temperature variability, in turn increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme heatwaves.
The increase in hot and record-hot weather is disproportionately worse in developing countries, which tend to have more annual cooling degree days (CDD), or the number of degrees that a day’s average temperature is above 65o F, and people begin to use air conditioning to cool buildings. The 30 hottest cities in the world can be found in developing countries. These countries share the greatest burden when it comes to heat stress as a result of their existing climatic conditions and the onset of climate change.
Cooling is often overlooked as an urgent development issue. More than 1 billion people lack access to energy and therefore are likely to lack access to cooling as well. Yet only 0.04 percent of total Overseas Development Assistance is directed to cooling solutions. The economic and social costs of not ensuring sustainable and affordable cooling access for all are poorly understood and not widely disseminated. As a result, countries may be locked into costly, high-carbon, energy-inefficient cooling pathways.
Health impacts of access to cooling and refrigeration
Dangerous heatwaves are increasing, leading to high death tolls in developed and developing countries alike. In 2003, several continents experienced devastating heatwaves. They claimed more than 20,000 lives in Europe. Shanghai suffered the worst heat wave in 50 years, with major increases in mortality for the elderly. In 2015, India and Pakistan suffered record-breaking heatwaves resulting in more than 4,500 deaths; temperatures reached a staggering 49° C. Heatwave impacts are sadly the worst for the elderly, women, and the poor — already often society’s most vulnerable groups.
Heatwaves needn’t claim so many lives. During the 20th century, the mortality impact of days with a mean temperature exceeding 27° C declined by 75 percent in the US. Almost the entire decline occurred after 1960 and is attributed to increasingly widespread access to air-conditioning.
Access to refrigeration to ensure safe food production, storage, use, and transportation becomes ever-more critical as average temperatures and the number of weeks with above-threshold temperatures increase. Such access is similarly critical for medicines and, in particular, vaccines as the changing climate increases the geographic spread of infectious diseases that were previously endemic in tropical zones. Efficient refrigeration is needed to avoid both overheating and overcooling of vaccines.
Cooling and education
Cooling is not only a matter of thermal comfort. For school children, it is also strongly linked to educational performance. In Denmark, using air-conditioning to reduce classroom temperatures to 20° C from 25° C resulted in significant improvements in pupils’ performance in arithmetic and language-based tests. Some studies have questioned whether classrooms are being cooled more than necessary. Finding the optimal temperature is important not just for comfort and concentration but also to avoid unnecessary costs, freeing up valuable education budgets.
Cooling and working conditions
In the workplace, avoiding overly warm conditions is important not just for productivity, but also for employee safety. Labor supply and labor productivity decline sharply when the temperature rises above threshold values located between 20° C and 30° C. Temperature has a large effect on a country’s overall economic productivity. One study found that a person’s individual working day declines roughly 1.7 percent for each 1° C increase in the daily average temperature above 15° C. A single weekday above 30° C costs the economy an average of $20 per person. Economy-wide losses of 2.5 percent for every 1 degree increase have been found in the Caribbean and Central America. Even in office buildings, studies find that high air temperatures negatively affect performance and reduce productivity.
Cooling is important to prevent workers from being put in danger simply by doing their job in the heat. Exposure to extreme heat is a health risk to physically active workers (particularly outdoor workers but also indoor workers without access to adequate cooling systems). For this reason, the international standard for occupational heat exposure (ISO7243) recommends minimum amounts of rest every hour for different work intensities. A study found that a predicted warming increase of up to 6° C by 2070 has serious implications for the workforce in Australia. In parts of the country, the number of days that physical labor is unsafe due to heat would rise from an annual average of 31 days to 94 days.
Cooling and the Sustainable Development Goals
Access to cooling is linked to achievement of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): poverty (1), zero hunger (2), good health and well-being (3), affordable and clean energy (7), decent work (8), industry (9), sustainable communities (11), responsible consumption and production (12), and climate action (13).
K-CEP at a crossroad
K-CEP sits at the crossroad of the Montreal Protocol, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Sustainable Development Goals. It will support energy-efficient, low-GWP cooling in developing countries and focus not only on air-conditioning and refrigeration, but also on other cooling solutions such as building design, shading, cool roofs, and super-efficient fans. In this way, K-CEP aims to contribute to major global efforts to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.