By Paul Bunje
New data has revealed an alarming trend: carbon emissions have begun accelerating again. And recent wildfires, floods, and extreme weather suggest that the impacts of those carbon emissions are growing frighteningly more frequent and unavoidable.
Despite this inevitability, we have also recognized that any action we undertake to limit climate change’s scope and scale is invaluable. In essence, every degree of additional warming avoided matters to billions of people for generations to come. While some positive steps have been taken, including the landmark Paris Climate Agreement and the rapid rise of price-competitive renewable energy sources, one thing is clear: we need to innovate every aspect of our energy system, the primary driver of climate change, to avert disastrous consequences.
Considerable attention and investment have gone to innovation in low-carbon energy production, leading to amazing growth in technologies like wind and solar power. But relatively little attention has gone toward innovating the underlying technologies behind commonly used equipment and appliances; in other words, the drivers of electricity demand.
Affecting climate change requires us to innovate not only our energy sources, but also the often-overlooked daily-life technologies at the source of rising energy demand. Case in point: air conditioning. Revolutionizing this growing global driver of electricity demand offers an opportunity to harness existing market incentives.
As hundreds of millions of people move into the middle class - and seek comfortable, healthier living conditions - demand for air conditioning is rising rapidly, especially in developing countries such as India and China. A recent report from Rocky Mountain Institute estimates a fourfold increase in the number of residential air conditioners (RACs) on the market by 2050, from 1.2 to 4.5 billion units. The amount of carbon emitted by these RACs is predicted to increase global temperature 0.5°C by 2100. This exponential growth in air conditioners will make it nearly impossible to keep global warming to the Paris Agreement climate goal of less than 2°C above preindustrial levels.
This growing demand presents a massive market opportunity; investment in efficiency and transformative cooling technologies can ensure that both development and climate goals can be reached.
Current RACs employ a core technology that was first used over 100 years ago. They are incredibly inefficient, even in relation to the potential of this technology. Conventional cooling technology also utilizes refrigerants -powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs) with global warming potential (GWP) anywhere up to 9,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2). Despite the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which provides a pathway to commence the phase down of these high-GWP refrigerants beginning in 2029, these refrigerants could still be responsible for as much as 10 percent of total human-caused climate change.
Even the best commercially available RACs only operate at a fraction (around 14 percent) of their maximum theoretical energy efficiency performance. The indirect emissions of CO2 from powering air conditioners typically account for roughly 80 percent of an air conditioner’s total lifetime GHG emissions.
An air conditioner built for maximum efficiency and minimal climate impact would offer a technological breakthrough on climate change. This would accelerate and amplify the intended impact of the Kigali Amendment, as well as providing significant new economic opportunity. Investing in applied cooling technology development makes sense, not only for policymakers concerned about climate change, but also for businesses seeking new growth.
We have the technology to replace the need for refrigerants and high electricity consumption, but translating those prototypes from the lab into the marketplace remains the greatest barrier to scale. The US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E funded a range of novel technologies beginning in 2010, including adsorption chillers utilizing solar thermal or waste heat, low-GWP refrigerants such as CO2, and more. However, none have reached the market at scale for residential air-conditioning products.
Translating these cooling innovations into consumer products can play a vital role in significantly reducing GHG emissions. Any such product must be affordable, effective, reliable, and easily maintained in order to enter the international market.
Open innovation programs, like the recently launched Global Cooling Prize, offer a proven pathway for incentivizing technological pioneers the world over. Tying such a prize to government-led bulk procurement programs, negotiating industry advanced market commitments, and enabling seed investments to launch start-ups, will further accelerate the transition to sustainable cooling for all.
Paul Bunje is the cofounder of Conservation X Labs, a technology and innovation company that works in the field of conservation. He is also the former chief scientist at XPRIZE.
Conservation X Labs | conservationxlabs.com