How much cooling does the world need?


Published: 20 May 2020

Energy demand for cooling could increase more than five times by 2050

Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, on why experts from around the globe have joined forces to create a new clean cold research hub, the Centre for Sustainable Cooling.

Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham

Between now and 2050, it is estimated that upwards of 13 pieces of cooling equipment (air conditioning and refrigeration) will be deployed every second. Despite this massive increase (tripling) in the cooling provision, access to cooling for all who need it will still not be a reality, and the poor in many hot countries will feel the impact.

Access to cooling is not a luxury. It is about fresh, nutritious food, safe medicines and protection from heat for populations in a warming world. It is vital for economic productivity, as well as wellbeing. According to the latest Sustainable Energy for All Chilling Prospects report published last year, more than 1bn people do not have access to cooling and suffer the consequences. Cooling is an issue of equity that in a warming world requires fast action to protect the most vulnerable.  However, how we meet this challenge and provide access to cooling for the benefit of all who need it will have significant ramifications for our climate; without intervention, we could see the energy demand for cooling increase more than five times by 2050.

Last year UN Secretary General, António Guterres, called on all countries to develop National Cooling Action Plans (NCAPs) to deliver efficient and sustainable cooling and bring essential life‑preserving services like vaccines and safe food to all people.  But an underestimation of the scale of the cooling demand and its impact on energy demand risks a lack of ambition in policy, infrastructure and technology development that could have far-reaching social, economic and environmental consequences. Universal access to environmentally, economically and socially cooling is a multi-faceted challenge: In short - how do we meet the urgent global need for cooling for the benefit of all without overheating the planet?

In order for a government or community to ensure that the cooling needs of their population are met sustainably - and track progress - they first need to understand what these needs are. To date, much analysis and projections of cooling demand have been based on models of GDP and population growth. These do not deliver access to cooling for the benefit of all who need it; instead, projections of those will be able to afford it. 

The most holistic current approaches to the challenge of sustainable global cooling tend to begin with the question: how many room air conditioners or fans are people going to buy (for thermal comfort), and how can this level of cooling be provided in the most efficient, clean and sustainable way? These global frameworks fail to address broader social dimensions of heterogeneous cooling needs, their implication on energy systems, as well as being unable to address people’s thermal practices, cultures and knowledge complexities.

In fact, neither nationally nor globally, there has not yet been any robust, integrated assessment of what cooling demand will look like if we are to deliver access to affordable, sustainable cooling for the benefit of all. For example, how much cold-chain would be required to enable farmers’ incomes to double by 2025, or to end hunger and malnutrition and feed the world? Alternatively, how much cold-chain is needed to provide access to vaccines for all infants? Or how much cool comfort in buildings and transport would need to be provided to vulnerable populations to avoid heat stress associated illness or morbidity? In short, what needs must be met in a country or community if we are to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with no-one left behind?

And, if we do not know this, we cannot quantify the potential environmental impact of Access to Cooling for the benefit of all who need it; nor can we properly mitigate demand; nor design optimised solutions and comprehensive Cooling Action Plans which meet the needs of all the people. And we cannot track progress in tackling the problem.

Country scale cooling need-based research and modelling are still at their infancy, and there is a massive data inadequacy and a lack of standardised methodology on cooling needs assessment. Led by researchers at University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt, we are developing a needs-based assessment of cooling based on a society’s cooling needs assessment aligned to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. From this, we can then calculate what are the financial costs and environmental consequences of meeting these demands on a business as usual approach to understand the implications on a county’s Nationally Determined Contributions and carbon emissions.

By quantifying and understanding the portfolio of needs as well as then the portfolio of energy resources, we can enable countries to develop optimum and “fit for the market” strategies, based on a merit order of intervention from demand mitigation through design (as simply as natural shading, ventilation and cool roofs) to harnessing untapped thermal resources through sorption chilling and other nascent technologies, the use of thermal energy storage (not just batteries) alongside deploying more energy efficient appliances and integrating renewable electricity. And we will be to able understand the skills and capacity required to meet the technology demand. As such, the data from robust cooling needs assessment will underpin the development of comprehensive and robust country-specific cooling action plans delivering access to cooling for the benefit of all who need.

The CSC aims to make the most of clean, sustainable chilled distribution systems

However, a key challenge is that we do not “think thermally”. When we talk energy, we inherently mean electricity, and when we talk energy storage we mean batteries. Yet much of energy demand is thermal, and cooling in the global south and could be better served by thermal strategies and thermal storage, rather than simply greening electricity.

Cooling for All is not only urgent, it is also complex. Developing sustainable and equitable solutions requires a holistic approach and a complete understanding of the need across agricultural, medical, and energy sectors.  The purpose of the Cooling for All Needs-based Assessment framework - to be published this Spring - is to provide governments with a blueprint and methodology to understand those needs and better define a country’s Cooling Action Plan and fit for market solutions which


  • contributes to achieving safe thermal comfort for people, preservation of products and produce (medicines, food and others), and effective and efficient processes (data centres, industrial or agricultural production) for the benefit of all who need it and
  • delivers this in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

There is a significant probability that if countries fail to ask and answer these questions any thermal planning will be inadequate and will prevent both SDGs and climate targets from being achieved. Conversely by properly understanding the portfolio of cooling demand (for food, health and thermal comfort), economic and social development and the environment are aligned.

UK experts recently visited Delhi, Hyderabad and Haryana to work out the most effective ways of helping farmers to increase economic wellbeing by making the most of crop post-harvest management and clean, sustainable chilled distribution systems

Led by UK universities, the aim of the Centre for Sustainable Cooling (CSC)is to allow the use of radical new cooling solutions to help small-holder farmers, medicine suppliers and others make the most of clean and sustainable chilled distribution systems.

The CSC will look to transform research into affordable technology, working through global partners including Kyushu University, Japan; Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; Norwegian University of Science and Technology; CEPT India, Technical University – Sofia; Institute of Engineering Thermophysics (IET), Chinese Academy of Sciences, and University of Science and Technology Beijing, plus UK universities such as Aston, Birmingham, Brighton, Brunel, Heriot-Watt, London South Bank and Loughborough.