Green building

Supporting climate action (SDG13) with sustainable cooling

  • Sustainable cooling for all is central to both climate change mitigation and adaptation. 
  • In 2030, with a BAU efficiency and electricity mix, the adoption of all compatible cooling appliances could result in over 125 MTCO2 of indirect annual emissions. Combining energy efficiency standards for appliances and buildings with the decarbonization of electricity supply can reduce indirect emissions by 40 percent while expanding the compatibility [1] of cooling appliances by 16 percent.

Access to sustainable cooling for all lies at the intersection of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Urgent action is needed to realize its full potential for climate action – or at least avoid dangerous negative feedback loops. The ability to cool down, to have access to thermal comfort during heatwaves, and to preserve food, fresh produce and heat-sensitive medical supplies is fundamental, especially for those people most exposed and vulnerable, to cope with rising temperatures and their adverse effects. At the same time, global indirect GHG emissions due to energy use for space cooling more than doubled between 1990 and 2021. A reduction of at least two-thirds of emissions will be needed in the current decade if the world is to achieve net zero by 2050. [1]

Additional reductions in direct emissions — those caused by refrigerant leakages — will be delivered with the implementation of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which calls for phasing down the production and consumption of refrigerants with high global-warming potential. The Kigali Amendment also provides a further push for the improvement of energy efficiency in active cooling technologies, and for holistic strategies to reduce cooling-related energy demand. Currently, 139 countries have ratified or accepted the Kigali Amendment, including 38 of the 54 high-impact countries, among which are China, India and, most recently, Brazil and the Philippines. 

In 2030, with BAU appliance efficiency, almost 920 million cooling appliances could be compatible with the electricity supply levels of households at medium and low risk in high-impact countries.  If all compatible cooling appliances are adopted to meet households' cooling needs and powered with a BAU electricity mix, it could result in over 125 MTCO2 of indirect annual emissions in 2030 (Figure 4).

More widespread adoption of energy-efficient appliances and buildings has the potential to avoid the emission of at least 9 MTCO2 annually while expanding compatibility to almost 1.07 billion cooling appliances. A decisive push for the decarbonization of electricity systems will further curb cooling-related GHG emissions. If stringent energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings are matched with a simultaneous decarbonization of electricity supply in line with a 1.5°C pathway, [2] indirect emissions from cooling could be reduced by an overall 40 percent, to 76 MTCO2 per year in 2030. 

Figure 4. Estimated annual indirect emissions from compatible cooling appliances in households at risk in 2030

Beyond the residential sector, extensive cold chains are needed to ensure sufficient and good quality food for the world’s growing population. However, current systems are able to support refrigeration of just 47 percent of all agri-food produce that requires cold storage.  Adequate cold chains could save 526 million tonnes of food per year — enough to feed more than 950 million people — but sustainable solutions are needed to limit the additional energy demand and emissions associated with this expansion. An improved global cold chain could save 50 percent of CO2 emissions while also avoiding 55 percent of the food losses seen in the current cold chain. [3]

Notes and references

[1] Cooling appliances include refrigerators-freezers, ceiling and portable fans and air conditioners. "Compatibility" is defined based on a comparison of average annual unit electricity consumption and assumed levels of electricity supply available to households with medium and low access to cooling risk. Learn more
[2] Based on: IRENA (2021), World Energy Transition Outlook; IRENA (2020), Global renewables Outlook
[3] IRR (2021), The carbon footprint of the cold chain (link)