Good news: Artificial cooling can be made significantly more efficient and environmentally friendly

Given the current rate at which the planet is warming, there is no longer any question – our lifestyles will be changing dramatically, and they will probably keep changing for the rest of our lives. As I’ve stated many times, I think the pathway to survival for humanity requires us to retain most of the advantages of modern technology as we make our way on this newly hostile planet. It’s possible that the most important piece of technology for us to hold on to is the ability to lower the temperature of enclosed spaces.

Hotter weather means we’re going to need increased indoor cooling to stay healthy and happy in general, and in some places we’ll need it to stay alive, at least for part of the year. We’ll also need to be able to refrigerate or freeze food to keep it from spoiling, and refrigeration is essential to various areas of scientific research. The problem is that the refrigeration process tends to release chemicals with various harmful environmental impacts. Chlorofluorocarbons were probably the first ones that gained widespread attention for the damage they did to Earth’s ozone layer, but while phasing them out did help with that problem, they were mostly replaced with hydrofluorocarbons, which have their own problems. Now, research has indicated that there’s a great deal of potential to reduce that pollution without losing the ability to preserve food and life through artificial cooling.

A new IIASA-led study shows that coordinated international action on energy-efficient, climate-friendly cooling could avoid as much as 600 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions in this century.

Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are mainly used for cooling and refrigeration. While they were originally developed to replace ozone-depleting substances that are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol, many HFCs are potent greenhouse gases with a global warming potential up to 12,400 times that of CO2 over a 100-year period.


“Our results show that the global cumulative HFC emissions from refrigerant use in cooling technologies would have been over 360 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent between 2018 and 2100 in the pre-Kigali baseline scenario. In addition, indirect CO2 emissions from energy production of electricity used in cooling equipment will be approximately the same order of magnitude if the world continues along its present path, without any additional changes in energy policy,” explains IIASA researcher Pallav Purohit, who led the study.

“We found that if technical energy efficiency improvements are fully implemented, the resulting electricity savings could exceed 20% of future global electricity consumption, while the corresponding figure for economic energy efficiency improvements would be about 15%,” adds study coauthor and senior IIASA researcher Lena Höglund-Isaksson.

The researchers say that the combined effect of HFC phase-down, improvement of energy efficiency of stationary cooling technologies, and future changes in the electricity generation fuel mix would prevent between 411 and 631 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions between 2018 and 2100, thereby making a significant contribution towards keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C. Transitioning to high efficiency cooling can therefore double the climate mitigation effects of the HFC phase-down under the Kigali Amendment, while also delivering economic, health, and development benefits.

The findings further show that reduced electricity consumption could mean lower air pollution emissions in the power sector, estimated at about 5 to 10% for sulfur dioxide, 8 to 16% for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 4 to 9% for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions compared with a pre-Kigali baseline.

“To be consistent with 1.5°C scenarios, by 2050 HFCs should be reduced by between 70 and 80% compared to 2010 levels. According to the Kigali Amendment and Maximum Technically Feasible Reduction (MTFR) scenarios we analyzed, we could achieve 92.5% and 99.5% reductions in 2050 compared to 2010 levels, respectively. This means that both scenarios surpass the 1.5 °C threshold. If carefully addressed during the transition to alternatives that have the potential to relieve global warming, improvement potentials for energy efficiency in cooling technologies are extensive and can bring significant electricity savings,” Purohit concludes

Retaining the ability to cool things down, while decreasing harmful emissions from doing so and decreasing the energy spent to do it means that we are that much more likely to have energy to spare for things like hydrogen production, indoor food production, and carbon sequestration efforts. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of modern technology depends on the ability to lower temperature within enclosed spaces. Losing that would mean losing a number of major aspects of modern medicine, manufacturing, and food transport, so being able to do it more cleanly is a big deal.

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