Market scene Malawi

Sustainable cooling: an essential part of a just and equitable energy transition

By Alan Miller, Senior Advisor to the Cooling for All SecretariatBen Hartley, Principal Specialist, Energy Efficiency and Cooling

Sustainable cooling is essential for meeting climate and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or what is increasingly discussed as a "just and equitable energy transition". For the 736 million people living in extreme poverty [1] and the roughly similar population without access to electricity, this represents a great challenge – one increasingly recognized and becoming a subject for climate finance.

As the world warms, around 30 percent of the global population is exposed to life-threatening heat for at least 20 days a year. [2] The recent IPCC report reviewing climate impacts and adaptation emphasizes both the expected increase in frequency of extreme heat events and much greater vulnerability of low-income populations in developing nations with low adaptive capacity. Even in a low-emissions scenario, the authors concluded, 50 percent of humanity may be exposed to life-threatening conditions arising from extreme heat and humidity by 2100.


of the global population is exposed to life-threatening heat for at least 20 days a year


of humanity may be exposed to life-threatening conditions arising from extreme heat and humidity by 2100

As several SEforALL reports have explained, cooling is essential for multiple SDGs: to protect against the risks of extreme heat, provide the cold chains needed for vaccines, to reduce food waste and improve food security, as a pathway for increasing the incomes of rural farmers, and to limit extreme heat in urban developments.  

While some cooling needs can be met with nature-based or passive cooling solutions – such as planting trees or using heat reflective paint on buildings – for many, equitable access to sustainable cooling hinges on access to electricity to power cooling devices (active cooling). At the same time, continued reliance on inefficient devices could have drastic consequences for energy demand, energy access, and emissions.

Less than 10 percent of the almost 3 billion people living in the hottest parts of the world possess air conditioners. [3] The combination of rising temperatures and incomes means this figure is growing rapidly; by 2050 it has been projected around 2/3 of the world’s households could have an air conditioner – more than a billion new units. 

Without subsidies or strict performance standards, low-income consumers will buy the lowest cost and typically least energy-efficient equipment, some still using potent greenhouse gases as refrigerants, locking in their use for a decade or more. The resultant growth in demand for power has been described as a "veritable carbon time bomb." [4] The need is increasing and increasingly urgent for environmentally sustainable, efficient, and affordable cooling solutions, sufficient to meet local needs, supported by technologies, policies, financing and services. 

Much of the focus on extreme heat risks has to date focused on urban areas, where temperature extremes are exacerbated by "heat islands", the lack of vegetation, and the vulnerability of poor slum dwellers. SEforALL and the World Bank are working together to show that the risks in rural areas could be equally or more significant as the populations are typically poorer and more dependent on small farms highly vulnerable to extreme temperatures.

Rural populations are also more likely to lack access to a reliable, affordable source of electricity to power active cooling, and the absence of cooling also limits access to vaccines and good healthcare services. Declining opportunities in rural areas are also likely to accelerate migration to cities expanding urban slums and social problems.

The challenge is to identify strategies that simultaneously address the need for cooling and provide access to modern energy while also responding to climate change – all elements of a just, equitable energy transition. Fortunately, there is growing recognition that climate action must support development goals and the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable populations. 

Both the February 2022 report of the IPCC on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and the November 2021 Glasgow climate meetings, COP26, framed many of their conclusions around this objective. As IPCC vice-chair Ko Barrett explained, an effective response to climate change requires asking "Are we being fair and careful not to further disadvantage poor, vulnerable and under-represented populations?"

A statement on "Conditions for a Just Transition Internationally" prepared for COP26 and signed by 16 developed countries and the EU acknowledges their climate actions need to be fully inclusive and benefit "the most vulnerable through the more equitable distribution of resources, enhanced economic and political empowerment, improved health and wellbeing, resilience to shocks and disasters and access to skills development and employment opportunities."

These high-level declarations indicate new awareness of the importance and meaning of a just transition. There are also some recent initiatives toward putting this rhetoric into action. One is a significant commitment of climate funds to sustainable cooling projects. 

Until recently, climate finance for access to cooling had been very limited outside of projects that promoted higher efficiency appliances and buildings. [5] Notably, such projects qualify as both mitigation and adaptation by reducing energy needs while also providing protection from extreme heat.

In October 2021, the Green Climate Fund approved USD 157 million for a new facility to help finance sustainable cooling projects implemented by the World Bank with an additional USD 722 million in leveraged co-finance. The facility will support nine countries to develop low-carbon and inclusive cooling solutions and focus on space cooling, refrigeration, and cold chains. In Kenya and Malawi, the facility will specifically address rural communities and ways of increasing their agricultural production. 

The importance of sustainable cooling as a condition for the SDGs and climate goals appears belatedly to be receiving the attention it deserves. But with the clock ticking on the SDGs and a closing window for meeting the Paris climate goals, we have to move faster. This means rapidly scaling up investment in innovative cooling technologies and business models that make lifesaving cooling solutions affordable for all - and sustainable for the planet. In a warming world, we cannot deliver just and equitable energy transitions without them.

[1] World Development Indicators, World Bank
[2] Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All, SEforALL, 2018
[3] The Future of Cooling, International Energy Agency, 2018
[4] Quote from Dan Hamza Goodacre within Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All, SEforALL, 2018. Pg. 42
[5] Financing Access to Cooling Solutions, SEforALL, 2020