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India’s Tricky Path To Cooling Itself Without Warming the World – The Wire Science


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Cooling is a developmental need in India – a country whose population is going to become increasingly vulnerable to heat stress. So limiting India’s cooling demand and denying cooling access to the people is not an option. However, this inevitable demand could be an opportunity to utilise energy efficiency as a resource and improve access to cooling in a sustainable manner.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that to limit global warming to 1.5°C, net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach “net zero” around 2050.

The world emits around 50 gigatonnes of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide equivalent) each year, leading to global warming. If these emissions continue unchecked, the average global surface temperature is expected to reach 4.1º-4.8º C above pre-industrial levels. This temperature rise has ecological, physical and health impacts, including heat stress, sea-level rise, altered crop growth and disrupted water systems.

A recent UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report suggests that unless emissions fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5º C goal of the Paris Agreement.

Tackling climate change is one of Joe Biden’s four key priorities in his first term as US president; and France, the UK and many other countries have pledged to become net carbon neutral by 2050. However, according to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), all these pledges (made until November 2020) being fully implemented would still mean surface temperature can rise by 2.1º C by 2100.

Electricity demand in the building sector, driven by cooling systems, specifically in the developing world poses one of the many serious challenges for these countries vis-à-vis reducing power sector emissions. The recent UNEP-IEA Cooling Emissions and Policy Synthesis Report stated that up to 0.4º C of warming could be avoided by 2100 by transitioning to energy-efficient and climate-friendly cooling solutions.

Sectoral contributions

A robust statistical analysis of country-specific sectoral contributions to the global climate problem would perhaps be key to identifying future emission drivers and developing technological and policy solutions. The top 10 sectors contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 (in millions of tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent) are:

The electricity and heating sector worldwide contributes around 30% of total global emissions, driven principally by electricity demand from heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) in urban infrastructure. Geographically, the most ‘offending’ of these sectors are those of China and the US.

A recent report from The Economist Intelligence unit projects that the global electricity demand for space-cooling will grow by 6.1% per year until 2030, up to 5,950 TWh. Expanding capacity to meet this demand will contribute around 10.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. China’s electricity and heating sector emissions, driven by HVAC demand, is already the highest polluting sector worldwide. It has also been reporting the fastest growth in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000.

India’s cooling demand

India’s electricity and heating sector is the seventh highest greenhouse-gas-emitting sector among top 10 polluting sectors, and is steadily rising through the ranks. With increasing population and to achieve better living standards, the demand for electricity and cooling is on the rise in India as well. Considering especially a massive growth in the aspirational middle class, India’s electricity and heating/cooling sector is likely to be the highest emitting sector in the business-as-usual scenario.

From providing thermal comfort in our homes and offices to keeping our food, cars and medicines cool, cooling solutions have increasingly been becoming a necessity.

According to the India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP), the aggregated nationwide cooling energy demand (in terms of primary energy) is expected to grow around 2.2 times in 2027, over the 2017 baseline, and the cooling demand in terms of tonnes of refrigeration is expected to grow around 3.1-times in 2027 over the 2017 baseline. This growth also portends a rise in emissions.

Sustainable cooling

Governments around the world must ensure sustainable cooling considerations are included in energy, urban, transport, agricultural and health service projects, among others, and also install policies and regulations to reduce the need for cooling in residential, commercial and industrial buildings. They can encourage manufacturers to improve the energy efficiency of their cooling products and lower the warming potential of refrigerants in line with or exceeding the obligations under the Montreal Protocol. Finally, governments can also institute minimum energy performance standards and labelling schemes for air conditioners.

A challenge in the way of introducing super-efficient cooling products is the initial price hump, which makes them less competitive relative to more prevalent but also more inefficient products. These affordability concerns influence consumer behaviour. The recently released TERI cooling sector perception study shows that over 90% of consumers of cooling products look at the star-rating of the appliance – but the cost almost always wins out. To make the most efficient option the more preferred option, crossing the price-hump is crucial, and the role of business models to reduce costs becomes important.

In this regard, examples of public bulk procurement programmes, like that of Energy Efficiency Services Ltd., are worth emulating. Such programmes leverage economies of scale through demand aggregation and result in significant reduction of the prices of the latest equipment and their availability to the masses.

National synergistic actions

India’s 2021-2022 Economic Survey estimates that India could lose 5.8% of its working hours, equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs in absolute terms, to heat-stress events by 2030. The data suggests a significant growth potential in the penetration of ACs and other cooling services (including cold storage) in India with increasing standard of living. Likewise, the country’s share of the total electricity demand for cooling is expected to increase from 7% in 2020 to almost 20% in 2030.

This increase can negate efforts to contain global warming if we don’t also implement energy-efficient interventions. Proactive policy frameworks like the ICAP and accelerated efficient technology deployment guided by such frameworks will help. Transitioning to climate friendly cooling access would potentially be the best business model for India to build back better and perhaps help in achieving net zero emission goals by the mid-century.

R.R. Rashmi is a distinguished fellow and Manjeet Singh is an associate fellow, both at TERI.



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