Keeping our cool without warming the planet

In a summer defined by blistering heatwaves across the Northern Hemisphere, there is an urgent need to curb greenhouse gas emissions and offer people relief from the heat. As is abundantly clear, extreme heat events are only going to become more frequent, severe, and widespread. In this superheated new normal, access to cooling is no longer a luxury; it’s a human right. This is a growing public health emergency, particularly for low-income and historically under-resourced communities, and it must be addressed with the same seriousness and investment level that relief from freezing winters has always received.

A critical and often overlooked component, central to expanding access to cooling, is the need to make sure we’re scaling the adoption of energy-efficient, climate-friendly cooling solutions. During heatwaves, conventional cooling equipment puts huge stress on the power grid — making up over 70% of peak load in some states. This results in the need for additional dirty, peaker plants to come online to provide needed power, to the detriment of air quality for the communities near these plants. Then, when power demand exceeds supply, the result is blackouts and brownouts that further make it difficult to keep cool. We need our appliances to meet our needs without overloading the grid and threatening the health and resilience of people.

We’re in a vicious climate cycle, and nowhere is this more obvious than through the lens of the cooling sector. More greenhouse gas emissions accelerate climate change, driving higher temperatures and demand for air conditioners (more than 3 billion newly installed units are projected globally by 2050). Increased AC use leads to more emissions through energy usage and leaking hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, which adds to atmospheric warming and strains already overloaded power grids.

The problem isn’t just concentrated in known hot spots like Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta. Regions that have never needed widespread cooling systems are now filled with people and companies purchasing their first AC units. The historically temperate Pacific Northwest of the US, for instance, is experiencing heat waves that would have been unheard of in a previous era. This leaves us as a society with both a challenge and an opportunity.

On the one hand, we have the challenge of keeping ourselves and our communities safe and resilient during extreme heat events. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to get ahead of this problem by shifting to better urban design, integrated passive cooling strategies, and the most efficient, climate-friendly mechanical cooling appliances possible.  Whether the cooling system is being purchased by someone whose unit just failed or a first-time buyer, the most obvious opportunity is to be smart and methodical with how we invest in these solutions so that they keep us cool without making the problem worse. As many AC units stay in use for 10 or more years, it’s vital to ensure consumers and businesses can better obtain the most efficient, least-polluting technologies available.

Cooling is an area where regulatory oversight can be a key force for good. Through improved minimum efficiency standards, we can make sure air conditioners are as efficient as possible and contain climate-friendly refrigerants. The Department of Energy should ensure its minimum efficiency standards are set at ambitious levels so that every unit sold is an efficient one, and Energy Star should regularly update its specifications to help consumers confidently select one of the more efficient models on the market. Up-to-date state and local building codes also help make sure that new homes and buildings, and major retrofits, have sufficient insulation and efficient windows, thereby reducing AC energy demand and resulting in lower utility bills for decades to come. Alongside these measures, we must also see more financial incentives and subsidies to help lower upfront purchasing costs, especially for low-income households.

Simultaneously we must boldly invest in next-generation cooling innovations that sip rather than gulp electricity and contain more climate-friendly refrigerants.

In many regions, the need for heating in winter is decreasing as the need for cooling in summer goes up. For places that require both cooling and heating solutions during the year, electric heat pumps are essential to decarbonising buildings. These devices can efficiently provide both cooling and heating in one appliance and remove the direct use of fossil fuels like natural gas, propane, or heating oil. We can advance this transition immediately, as they’re doing in Maine, by encouraging states to replace existing HVAC systems with electric heat pumps. The Inflation Reduction Act contains billions of dollars to support heat pump deployment and will certainly help kickstart this market. Consumer-facing programs are also being designed as we speak to make it easier to purchase and install this equipment, including the potential electricity panel upgrades that might be needed.

While the problems in our cooling landscape are plentiful, the solutions are mostly available. We just need the willpower from our leaders and incentives to consumers to make this transition swiftly and equitably. This would enable a faster transition to a clean, accessible, and renewable power grid, cause fewer blackouts, lower people’s utility bills, save lives from the threats of extreme heat, and prevent millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from entering the atmosphere—no sweat.

*Noah Horowitz is an efficiency and regulatory expert

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