As the Prime Minister heads to India for the India-UK Tech Summit, Professor Toby Peters of the Birmingham Energy Institute, argues that the humble fridge is the key to meeting the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Goals?
At the stroke of midnight last New Year’s Eve, the clock began to tick on the most ambitious set of international development targets ever conceived. By 2030, the UN’s Global Development Goals (‘Global Goals’) promise to banish hunger, poverty and inequality; ensure universal access to safe water, education, healthcare, clean energy and decent work; and secure peace, justice, economic growth and sustainability. Achieving all this within just fifteen years will be a monumental challenge. What is not yet widely recognised is that one critical factor will be the development of clean cooling.
Cooling is central to achieving the Global Goals not only because it is implicated in some of the fundamental problems they seek to solve, but also because those problems are themselves deeply intertwined. This multiplies the damage currently done by cooling – or its absence – but also means that clean cold solutions will have a powerful multiplier effect. As a result, clean cold will be directly or indirectly instrumental in achieving all 17 of the Global Goals.
Until recently cooling was the Cinderella of the energy debate – but it is a pillar of civilisation. Without it, the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. And life in many parts of the world would be scarcely tolerable without air conditioning.
Yet billions of people in developing countries live without cooling and suffer the consequences daily through hunger and ill-health. The lack of adequate ‘cold chains’ of refrigerated warehousing and transport causes two million vaccine preventable deaths each year, and the waste of 200 million tonnes of food – with consequences far beyond hunger. India’s National Centre for Cold-chain Development (NCCD) has concluded that developing temperature controlled logistics in rural areas is the critical factor in achieving the government’s target of doubling farmers’ income over the next five years. Equally food wastage occupies a land area almost twice the size of Australia; consumes 250km3 of water per year, three times the volume of Lake Geneva; and emits 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.
But if cooling is vital, it is also dirty. One estimate suggests that refrigeration and air conditioning cause 10% of global CO2 emissions – including both energy emissions and leaks of highly potent HFC refrigerant gases – which is three times that attributed to aviation and shipping combined. Another suggests cooling emissions currently account for 7% of the total, but are growing three times faster, so cooling’s share will almost double to 13% by 2030.
The recent global agreement to phase out HFC refrigerant gases may restrain emissions growth a little, but does nothing to tackle the 75% of cooling emissions that come from energy consumption.
Nor is the climate cooling’s only victim: refrigerated vehicles also emit grossly disproportionate amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM), the toxic pollutants that kill 3.7 people million worldwide each year. In Africa, air pollution kills more people prematurely than dirty water or childhood malnutrition.
But this is just the start of the cooling pollution crisis. Demand for cooling is booming in fast growing economies such as China and India, largely driven by urbanisation and the rapid emergence of an Asian Pacific middle class – predicted to rise to 3 billion by 2030, whose spending power could rise to $33 trillion. Their lifestyles – changing diets, improved healthcare, online data and air conditioning – will be built on cold. Air conditioning is a case in point. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimates the global stock of room air conditioners will rise by an additional 700 million by 2030, and 1.6 billion by 2059. And according to another forecast, by the end of the century global air conditioning will consume 10,000TWh, about half the electricity consumed worldwide for all purposes in 2010.
So as the world’s population heads to 9 billion by mid-century, increasing projected food demand by 60%, there is no question that we will need far more cooling. We will need it to conserve food, water and other resources; tackle poverty, hunger, health and climate change; and underpin growth and development. But if the new cold chains, data centres and air conditioners are cooled with conventional technologies, we will only solve one set of problems by creating another – quite possibly an environmental catastrophe.
If food wastage could be halved through the development of clean cold chains and other measures, each year it would: save enough food to feed an additional 1 billion people, half the population growth predicted to 2050; reduce emissions by 1.5GtCO2, more than those of Japan; conserve 125km3 of water, nearly twice that consumed by all the homes in the US; reduce fertilizer use by 21m tonnes or 11.5%. It would also avoid a massive increase in NOx and PM emissions from refrigerated transport as the global fleet expands – which could potentially equate to those of 1 billion diesel cars. Our analysis shows the additional food would raise farmers’ incomes but calm food prices, reduce hunger and poverty, support rural economies, reduce pressure to migrate to city slums and the potential for civil unrest.
Nor would it cost the earth. Clean cold technologies and the ‘cold economy’ could in fact become a powerful engine of sustainable growth worldwide. The University of Birmingham’s Commission on Cold found the cold economy could generate annual global savings of between £43 billion and £112 billion – a vast potential market and one which is set to grow for the rest of this century.
Not a bad day’s work for a humble fridge.
Professor Toby Peters is joining the Summit to discuss the role that clean cold chain infrastructure can play in improving agricultural systems, reducing waste and delivering greater prosperity for farmers as well as the opportunities it offers for UK advanced engineering. Read his paper Clean cold sits at the nexus of sustainable social and economic progress here.