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Meeting the challenge of cooling the world sustainably – a $6 trillion market by 2050

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

There’s a huge challenge upon us to decarbonise what is projected to be a $6 trillion value of installed equipment by 2050 – up from the present $1.5 trillion – in refrigeration and cooling.

Toby Peters, Professor in Clean Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, said that cooling is “front and centre of many Sustainable Development Goals – food, nutrition, health, rural poverty, energy consumption.”

“How do we meet the rising global need for cooling in a way which doesn’t blow the carbon budget?”

Professor Peters is helping convene a two-day Clean Cooling Congress in London that will look at designing a roadmap around sustainable, accessible cooling for all. The conference is being run by the University of Birmingham, the World Bank Group and the UK Department of Business Energy & Industrial Strategy.

Cooling is an issue of equity

“At the moment the world is projected to deploy 19 new cooling devices every second up to 2050 but it still won’t deliver cooling for all.”

Access to cooling is not a luxury. It’s about fresh food, safe medicines and protection from heat for populations in a warming world. It is vital for economic productivity, by allowing workers, farmers and students to work in comfortable optimised environments.

Cooling is an issue of equity that requires climate change mitigation and adaptation, urgently, to protect the most vulnerable.

Peters says he wants to put it on the global agenda – which it isn’t at the moment. “1 billion people don’t have access to cooling, with the result in countries like India and Africa up to 40 per cent of food is lost post harvest.”

In countries like the UK where there are existing refrigerated logistics chains, vehicles are allowed to run on red (tax-free) diesel – “unregulated puffing billies running on subsidised diesel,” Peters called them.

“Greening electricity and making airconditioning more efficient isn’t enough,” he said. “What we’re doing is bringing together experts from different fields to try to develop a roadmap to accelerate clean cooling to deployment.

The first thing is starting to think thermally – instead of electricity and batteries

“For example,” Peters asks, “is cooling better served by harvesting low grade waste heat and cold, and storing it in ice or phase change materials?”

He says that the barriers are not necessarily technical, mainly to do with policy, regulations, finance, and business models that can bring in new approaches like reducing demand for cooling, and behavioural change.

“We need approaches that are joined up and consistent and comprehensive. There is an urgent need to find the answers and the conference will help us do that together.”

Not enough research on sustainable cooling

He says that even though cooling is front and centre of a sustainable future “we spend in the UK less than 0.19 per cent of research – 0.22 per cent in the European Union – on cooling but there’s a massive need. It needs more investment.

“My hope is that in six months we will come up with the strategies. And it’s got to include training – there’s a great lack of it so when you look at the growth of airconditioning in India and China, do they have the necessary number of engineers to maintain them in order to reduce losses of efficiency?”

What are the solutions for sustainable cooling?

Professor Peters believes that solutions lie in taking a holistic perspective. “When you look at the whole system, we can design it to integrate different needs. For example, the food packing house in a rural community might also be able to provide cooling for a vaccine fridge.”

“We don’t simply need to look at reducing peak demand, we need to start storing surplus renewable energy” – which Peters calls “wrong time energy” – “as ice or liquid nitrogen. This can then provide air conditioning at peak times or refrigeration in transport. It would be cheaper than using battery or diesel in each case.”

So renewables are a vector for liquid gas and other forms of thermal energy storage

“Say you want to take the energy load of vehicle, say a bus, you could look at using phase change materials. The University of Birmingham has just completed a trial of food container in China which ran the five days with no extra energy required on road and rail. But we need to think about how we drive this approach into the market.

“We need to develop markets, find financing and think about new business models – do you sell cooling as a service for instance? To what extent can we use district cooling?”

Marc Sadler, the practice manager in the Climate Funds Management division of The World Bank, adds that, “the work that we are supporting will help governments, cities, the private sector and the international community take the urgent actions needed to encourage efficient, affordable and sustainable cooling in developing countries. It will help to address the inequity of cooling access, reduce food loss, improve health, and combat climate change.”

The International Energy Agency, who will be joining the conference, has done a lot of work on air conditioning, solar cooling, and making use of waste heat, but there is no joined up thinking strategy at national and global levels.

Identifying barriers around policy, finance and training

The conference hopes to gain insights and have good discussions around understanding the multiple needs in a joined up way. It is hoping to identify barriers, around policy, finance and training, and how we might find solutions. Peter says that a key outcome will be having a broad church of people working together.

The event will also see the launch of a new report on “Promoting Clean and Energy Efficient Cold Chain in India” by the Shakti Foundation and the University of Birmingham plus the new Cooling for All Secretariat, launched by Sustainable Energy for All last month in Rwanda, and the Global Cooling Prize Team led by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Government of India and Mission Innovation, as well as the UK government’s activities and initiatives on cooling internationally.

The conference is to feed in to a program where the World Bank, Sustainable Energy for All, UNEP, and other partners who are working on this can bring in industry and academia.

The kinds of people Peters would like to come to the conference is anyone interested in energy systems, technology, regulatory and finance – investors, bankers.

“Cooling cuts across everything, so multiple departments in governments need to be engaged. The market needs this and it offers immense opportunity.”

David Thorpe is the author of the book The ‘One Planet’ Life and the forthcoming book ‘One Planet’ Cities.

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