The Challenge of Cooling a Warming World

The world is heading for a significant growth in energy requirements for comfort cooling. With increasing populations and urbanization, and rising temperatures, cooling is no longer just a luxury, but an urgent priority for health and well-being, productivity, and in extreme cases, survival. However, the warmer it gets, the more we use air conditioning. The more we use air conditioning, the warmer it gets.  Therein lies the challenge of cooling a warming world.

The use of energy for cooling buildings more than tripled between 1990 and 2016, and is continuing to grow faster than for any other end use in buildings. Nearly 70% of this increase comes from the residential sector, particularly in developing economies. Nothing feels better than walking into an air-conditioned room after being outside with the sun beating down on a hot, humid summer day. But that air conditioning cooling your home relies on an electrical grid that most likely produces carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change causing hot, humid days to occur more frequently and with more intensity. With hot regions predicted to get hotter, there’s more need for cooling relief. Billions of people are at risk of exposure to increasingly dangerous heat conditions. They need access to cooling, but without warming the planet.

A global necessity

Our planet is getting hotter. Already, 30 percent of the world’s population is exposed to potentially dangerous heat conditions; by 2100, up to three-quarters could be at risk. Affordable cooling is becoming a global necessity, allowing for increased productivity, positive health outcomes, and accelerated economic development.

There are currently 1.2 billion room air conditioning units in service around the world and is estimated to grow to at least 4.5 billion by 2050. That number increases fivefold for developing countries over the same period.

The increased demand for air-conditioning units would place a massive burden on electricity grids that are already straining at their limits. When combined with the atmospheric impact of the refrigerants used by air conditioners, the energy consumption associated with mechanical cooling represents one of the largest end-use risks to our climate. 

The world needs a breakthrough air conditioning technology

One solution towards solving the problem presented by air conditioning – and one that doesn’t require a complete overhaul of the modern city – would be to build a better air conditioner. There is plenty of room for improvement. The invention of air conditioning predates both the first airplane and the first public radio broadcast, and the underlying technology has not changed much since 1902. The affordability of the air conditioner has widened, but as far as efficiency, they’ve improved but they haven’t leaped. Breakthrough air conditioning technology could amount to the single biggest technology-based intervention we can make to address global warming.

It is clear that the world needs a breakthrough air-conditioning technology, one that meets the world’s booming demand for cooling without contributing to runaway climate change. To achieve a profound climate impact, this technology must simultaneously address the indirect emissions from electricity and the direct emissions from refrigerants. International initiatives, such as those centered on the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, have made significant headway in addressing this challenge. While important, these initiatives are not sufficient to address the full consequences of cooling demand growth, as refrigerants account for only 20 to 30 percent of RAC-related emissions. Through technology innovation, we can solve the critical climate threat that comes from growing demand for room air conditioning.


One plan to encourage engineers to build a more efficient air conditioner is the Global Cooling prize. The aim is to design an air conditioner that is five times more efficient than the current standard model, but which costs no more than twice as much money to produce. The contest has received more than a hundred entries, from lone inventors to prominent universities, and even research teams from multibillion-dollar appliance giants.

New air-conditioner technology would be a huge part of the solution but there are other ways to help reduce the emissions from air conditioners. Among the suggestions are planting trees, retrofitting old buildings with proper ventilation and no longer building concrete and glass cages that cannot withstand a heatwave. While these things are technically cheaper, they require changes in behaviour and major policy shifts – and the open secret of the climate crisis is that nobody really knows how to make these kind of changes on the systematic, global scale that the severity of the crisis demands.


We need to do all of these things to address the cooling challenge and shake up an entrenched industry. It is possible to solve the global cooling challenge and enable thermal comfort for all without warming the planet: the solution lies in a breakthrough cooling technology along with behavioural and policy shifts. The result will improve people’s health, productivity, and well-being, all while avoiding climate change.

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Flammable Refrigerants: Consumer Safety or Environment

Flammable refrigerant

There’s a good reason why the air conditioning industry relies on chemicals that are bad for the environment—they’re safe for consumers. The Kigali Amendment, however, brings to the forefront the consumer safety versus environment trade-off. Based on current air conditioning technologies, there’s a direct trade-off between addressing climate change and refrigerant flammability. Lower global warming potential refrigerants such as R-32 and propane are more flammable. For now, to phase down HFCs, countries will need to squarely confront this trade-off.

In 2016, countries gathered to develop the Kigali Amendment to phase down the climate impact of refrigerants over the next 30 years. Sixty-nine countries have ratified the amendment. Notably, today’s two largest producers and consumers of HFCs, the US and China, have not signed on. Neither has India, the country likely to lead global air conditioning use in the future given the country’s hot, humid climate and large population.

Finding a Balance

There are two options for countries to take when looking at consumer safety and the climate.

  • Argue that consumer safety is paramount and no flammability risk is acceptable when it comes to air conditioning. Choosing this option says that the perceived cost in terms of safety is too high relative to the climate change benefit. A government holding this position would want to keep all flammable refrigerants off the market. Such a country would be relying on the development of new air conditioning technologies and refrigerants to meet its Kigali phase down goals. If new technologies don’t appear this view could lead a country to conclude that phasing out HFCs just isn’t worth the cost and continue relying on existing non-flammable options. The US is currently in this camp and has found itself with several states taking the phase-down into it’s own hands.
  • The second option is for a country to allow more flammable refrigerants to enter the market, with significant regulatory safeguards. An alternative refrigerant, R-32, which is classified as “mildly flammable”, has entered the market and captured a large market share. R-32 has been well known for decades but has been rarely adopted due to its flammability. These governments have, in effect, reconsidered the careful balance between consumer safety and climate change and concluded a riskier refrigerant is needed given the costs of climate change. Japan, Europe and Australia are taking this approach.

There is no winner or loser here. Moving to a low GWP refrigerant means people around the world, now and in the future, benefit from less climate change. It also means there are households who now have a flammable chemical in their home.

As efforts to address climate change progress, difficult trade-offs will likely become more common. It will be more important for policymakers to recognize the trade-offs and carefully balance them. Hopefully, with a little time, more manufacturers will find other ways to meet the environmental goals safely.

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