How to be cool: the next frontier of climate change mitigation

26 Jul 2022
After 2021 logging the most extreme heat wave in modern history and the hottest month on record globally, 2022 looks on route to set new records. Citizens from the US to Europe to central China have been suffering historic record temperatures in July, with fires raging across the south of Europe described as being ‘apocalyptic’. The expected rise in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will increasingly affect harvests and food prices in an overpopulated world, kill biodiversity in fragile but essential coral reefs, disrupt industrial supply chains and threaten homes and livelihoods, not only in the poorer parts of the world, but as recently seen also in ‘safe’ rich geographies like Europe and the US. Southeast Asia is among the geographies expected to most suffer the impacts of climate change (both risk and costs of mitigation), with insurer Swiss Re estimating climate change could cost the ASEAN countries up to 37% of their GDP by 2048. What is less spoken of are the devastating reinforcing feedback loops that global warming is triggering, from colossal amounts of methane greenhouse gas escaping from defrosting permafrost in high latitude arctic tundras, to a feedback loop literally happening closer to home: the increased need to cool ourselves. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew famously hailed air-conditioning as one of the enablers of his country’s productivity revolution. Preserving food and vaccines is hard to imagine without cooling and on a warming planet cooling is becoming increasingly crucial in combating heat related mortality, not only from direct impact on health, but also indirect, such as a higher incidence of violent crime during heat waves. The IEA expects the number of air conditioning units worldwide to grow from 1 billion today to 6 billion by 2050. Unless radical efficiency gains are made, this would result in air conditioning consuming about 13% of all electricity worldwide (as much as all of India and China today) and producing 2 bn tonnes of CO2 per year. Not only would this contribute over 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by the end of the century, it already is a major factor in the heat-island effect currently observed in cities. Staying cool without wrecking the planet further will require radically accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources. It will also require ‘smarter’ power grids to deal with more extreme peak energy demand, as increased AC use during heatwaves can cause peak power demands of 30%-50% above regular demand, already forcing power utilities to cut power supply, like China’s worst power cuts in a decade last year, or face wider blackouts. But some of the highest payoffs will come from reinvention of the by now century-old AC technology, as RMI and the government of India (one of the geographies with highest expected growth in AC units) are trying to incentivise through the Global Cooling Prize, or the Clean Cooling Collaborative, an initiative from ClimateWorks with support of the IKEA Foundation. Promising innovations are happening, from technologies using radiative cooling such as SkyCool Systems, to the membrane and water-based cooling technology being developed by Singapore’s NUS, but investment in innovative cooling solutions (USD 350m in 2019) is still surprisingly underweighted compared to other energy transition technologies. The bigger the challenge, the more we need to think in systems. For a massive challenge like cooling ourselves on a warming planet (1.1 bn people still lack access to cooling), learning and collaborating across sectors allows us to realise that the best cooling is the one we avoid. Passive design can play an important role here, for example improving wind flow through city design or covering buildings with ‘cool roofs’ of heat reflective colours or self-shading facades, such as explored by pioneering architectural studio Foster & Partners, incorporating low carbon aluminium from producers such as Norsk Hydro. Singapore is arguably one of the most ambitious cities when it comes to system planning, deploying a ‘digital urban climate twin’ that allows it to evaluate numerous city system design scenarios. But the next frontier to explore might be working with nature as our teacher and ally. Nature based solutions in cities have the potential to mitigate long term climate change, support biodiversity, improve air quality and water management, boost liveability of cities and wellbeing of citizens, and reduce costs. Medellin created 30 green corridors across the city, reducing the temperature by more than 2 degrees Celsius. Milan is planning to plant 3 million trees by 2050 and green roofs in cities such as Athens and Vienna have shown to reduce energy use by up to 15% and hugely reduce peak loads. Cities have become the perfect platform for visionary actors to join forces across stakeholders to identify and pilot nature-based systemic solutions to mitigate climate change. What’s cooler than that?
Geert-Jan (GJ) van der Zanden is visiting professor and senior advisor Sustainability Leadership at Sasin School of Management and Managing Director at European sustainability strategy consultancy Xynteo, where he has spent the last decade working closely with C-level and senior leaders of some of the world’s most progressive multinationals accelerating their sustainability transformation.
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