Up to eight years’ worth of global greenhouse gas emissions could be prevented over the next four decades by setting tougher standards for air conditioning, according to a study.
It found that improving the energy efficiency of cooling systems by using climate-friendly refrigerants could remove emissions equivalent to between 210bn and 460bn tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2060.
The peer-reviewed analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that cutting the use of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) alone could help avoid up to 0.4C of global warming by the end of the century.
Doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioning by 2050 would cut electricity use by 1,300 gigawatts, the equivalent of all the coal-fired power generation capacity in China and India in 2018, saving up to $2.9tn in electricity costs.
More efficient air conditioning would have other benefits too, according to the report, such as better access to life-saving cooling equipment for medicines and vaccines, improved air quality and reduced food loss and waste.
According to the report, an estimated 3.6bn cooling appliances are in use worldwide, and this could rise to 14bn by 2050 if cooling is provided to everybody who needs it rather than just those who can afford it.
Growing demand for cooling is contributing significantly to climate change by producing HFCs and carbon dioxide and often relying on electricity generated by fossil fuels. That demand is expected to grow faster in the years ahead in response to steadily rising global temperatures, creating a vicious circle of global heating.
Carbon emissions from the global energy industry in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in almost a decade, after extreme weather and surprise swings in global temperatures stoked the fastest increase in gas demand for 30 years.
The Unep/IEA report calls for action from governments to tackle the climate impacts of cooling as they roll out stimulus packages to deal with the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.
It calls for all countries to adopt an amendment to the Montreal protocol, an international environmental treaty agreed in 2016 that calls for a drastic reduction in HFCs and was agreed in 2016.
Inger Andersen, Unep’s executive director, said climate-friendly cooling could help protect the natural environment and even reduce the risk of future pandemics while preventing runaway carbon emissions.
Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director, said the Covid-19 pandemic offered governments “a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in efficient, climate-friendly cooling”, which he said was “one of the most effective tools governments have to meet energy and environmental objectives”.
He added: “By improving cooling efficiency, they can reduce the need for new power plants, cut emissions and save consumers money.”