The unspoken factor hidden behind Climate Change – Cooling

By Nico Lenz

Image by Mathieu Vivier from Pixabay


Over a billion people worldwide are at immediate risk from lack of access to space cooling. Yet cooling is only seldom mentioned in climate or development targets. On the other hand, the increasing population requires more and more food, leading to a demand for sustainable food-cooling often in regions that lack the needed infrastructure.


Prof. Philip Trotter conveyed those problems in his recent talk at ETH, focusing especially on sustainable food cooling and potential solutions regarding this hidden problem. Additionally, recent papers such as the Journal of Cleaner Production have provided studies that have shown the issues in cold chain systems in countries such as China and how we can reduce the environmental footprint whilst improving the cooling issues. 


Nevertheless, cooling remains underrepresented in many of today’s talks despite being closely linked to most of the SDG targets.


Image by Sławomir Kowalewski from Pixabay


Why is cooling important and how does it affect us?

Many people depend on cooling for their everyday needs. Tropical regions rely daily on AC units and with the earth getting ever hotter, the demand for apartment AC will only increase.


This type of cooling is known as space cooling. During heatwaves, we often find shelter in cold climatized shops or under the canopies of trees. Studies have shown that there exists a peak productivity temperature and that temperature plays an important role in our mental health.


The other type of cooling, known as food-cooling affects the cold chain from production to consumption. Food-cooling emits 2% of the world’s total CO2 emissions and is only expected to grow. Many developing countries lack the infrastructure to sustain freshly harvested or captured food from rapidly deteriorating, causing a lack of fresh food in cities, and forcing the food producers to sell at the first and often only opportunity, causing an impossibility for price negotiations. 


What are possible interventions for sustainable space cooling? 

Space cooling is currently mostly done using individual AC units. One possible intervention mentioned by Prof. Trotter in his talk is the potential for renting cooling to consumers with large delivery systems like today’s concept of district heating. This would on one hand relieve consumers of the upfront costs for AC units whilst enabling companies to set up large efficient cooling units and generate revenue by selling cooling as a product. 


Open-air spaces are cooled through shade mostly provided by greenery. This is often called passive cooling and relies on reducing large asphalt areas that retain heat more than shaded areas. Here most interventions lie in the hands of the municipality or state through the means of more greenery or using modern concepts for building green facades such as algae.


Additionally, even after the Montreal Protocol which was ratified in 1987 and banned the use of HCFCs, there are still many refrigeration devices that use the less but still harmful HFCs that were only recently targeted by the Kigali amendment.

Even then, the chance for potential development in this area is huge and future inventions could achieve a lot in this often forgotten but important sector of climate change.


What are possible interventions for sustainable food-cooling of cold-chain systems? 

We are used to buying refrigerated food fresh from the supermarket, but we don’t often think about how it got there. The process from food production to the consumer is the so-called cold-chain system and is often the missing link to sustainable food delivery in developing regions. Some regions don’t have a reliable energy delivery system that allows them to cool food at all logistics transit points.


A solution to this is through using ice, which can be rather efficiently produced in plants close to the food producing region. The solution where individual companies can help here is the use of mini solar grids that are powering the plants self-sustainingly. Studies, like a recent one from the US Agency for International Development, have shown that this allows the smaller individual food producers to sell their food for more favorable conditions whilst also being beneficial for the consumer since there’s longer-lasting fresh food available. By combining these solar grids with the plants for ice-making, a company can create more revenue for only a small increase in initial costs, which results in an all in all, profitable business idea.


What can we do?

Looking ahead, the effects of climate change seem inevitable. Some regions that use AC heavily in their day-to-day life need to expect some lifestyle changes which might be difficult to accept due to psychological factors playing a big part when it comes to cooling. Advancements in more efficient and CO2-neutral cooling solutions could produce a massive change in this area and massively help reach more of the SDG targets.


The above-mentioned concepts focus on the reduction of CO2 emissions but don’t focus on the problem of cooling demand itself. Many developing countries lack the infrastructure for energy delivery that would make cooling itself even possible. One intervention would be the development of power grids in every corner of the world. This, however, is down to each individual country to achieve and even if small businesses can support certain regions, this isn’t really a sustainable solution.


In the end, there is no textbook approach to the cooling issue. It is a problem that must evolve on its own individually in every region suited to their individual circumstances. 


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