Climate change and cooling

Climate change is the greatest threat humanity faces today. Global temperature rise, shrinking ice sheets, ocean acidification, rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather events present irrefutable evidence that we must act now to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Despite the dire warnings and urgency surrounding climate change, lack of political leadership could allow us to sleep walk into a man-made inferno. To date, national emission reduction pledges under the Paris agreement account for only a third of what is needed to stabilise global temperature rise at 2 ºC, and a fifth of what is needed for 1.5ºC. We are currently on a path to catastrophic 3°C warming – if emissions are not rapidly reduced before 2030 we will not be able to avoid 1.5°C warming and maybe even 2°C, regardless of subsequent action. The next ten years is therefore critical to speed up action wherever possible.

The cooling sector is a key driver of climate change that is often overlooked. Sitting at the heart of sustainable development, cooling is essential for food, vaccines, comfort, productivity, data centres, hospitals and much more. But with rising temperatures and populations, the world is installing more and more air-conditioning and refrigeration, contributing to further global warming in two ways – by increasing demand for electricity and through increased emissions of refrigerant greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

  • 1.5ºC

    safe threshold for global warming

  • 1/5

    national emission reduction pledges are a fifth of what is needed for 1.5ºC

  • 3ºC

    we are currently on a path to a catastrophic 3ºC warming

Emissions from the cooling sector are expected to grow substantially in the coming decades. Fortunately, the environmental impact of cooling can be reduced by replacing HFC refrigerants with climate-friendly refrigerants, improving the energy efficiency of cooling, reducing cooling loads and deploying renewable energy. The use of climate friendly refrigerants is often described as the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the climate change battle, as energy efficient alternative technologies exist and are increasingly being deployed.

The Montreal Protocol is the treaty at the heart of this issue. It was agreed in 1987 to address another existential threat – stratospheric ozone depletion. Widely hailed as the world’s most successful environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol has phased out 99 per cent of all ozone depleting substances (ODS), putting the ozone layer on the path to recovery. Starting with CFCs and working through several groups of ozone depleting gases, the Montreal Protocol is now officially an ozone and climate treaty, having agreed in 2016 to phase down non-ODS HFCs.

Despite its obvious success, the Montreal Protocol still faces a number of challenges. First it needs to finish the phase-out of ODS through the complete phase-out of HCFCs (hydrofluorocarbons, the precursors of HFCs and also powerful greenhouse gases). Second it needs to ensure ongoing compliance with its strict controls; the discovery of large-scale unexpected emissions of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in 2018 sent a shockwave through the Parties to the Protocol.

Finally, it needs to implement the global phase-down of HFCs under the Kigali Amendment, which came into force in 2019. As part of the transition away from HFCs to climate-friendly alternatives, the Montreal Protocol has committed to enhance energy efficiency in the cooling sector wherever possible.

Scientists estimate that Montreal Protocol controls have already brought about annual greenhouse gas emission reductions around five times higher than the first Kyoto Protocol period.  Implementation of the Kigali Amendment could avoid up to an additional 0.4°C of global warming by the end of the century, and significantly more if opportunities to improve energy efficiency during the transition are taken up and the phase down schedule is accelerated wherever possible.