Picture this: you live in a hot and humid climate, and you get access to energy. What’s the first thing you buy to stay cool? An air conditioner (AC). As incomes and standards of living increase around the world, so does the use of ACs. As a result, the global energy demand for ACs is expected to triple by 2050. However, people are buying units with average efficiencies of less than half of what is available on the market. To respond to the growing demand for cooling, we must, first and foremost, think energy efficiency.

Cooling appliances such as ACs consume energy and emit heat while running. Anyone who has ever put their hand behind their fridge knows what I’m talking about. In turn, these heat gains add to air-conditioning demand. This dynamic, combined with the rising demand for cooling, drives up both power needs and CO2 emissions. Hence the need to think energy efficiency.

Sustainable cooling solutions

I am fiercely passionate about supporting the development of technologies that cool people, products and the planet. Inevitably, the International Energy Agency (IEA)'s recent report 'The Future of Cooling' caught my attention. It shows that cooling appliances account for about a fifth of the total electricity in buildings around the world, or 10% of all global electricity consumption. In a nutshell, cooling is the strongest driver of growth in electricity demand from buildings. Just three countries - India, China, Indonesia - contribute to half of it.

Therefore it’s crucial to lead the way towards a sustainable cooling sector. We need to start today. We must follow a path that focuses on the best available technology and helps reduce the impact of cooling on energy demand and CO2 emissions. Smart energy solutions such as district energy, thermal storage or heat pump technology can combine heating and cooling cycles, and enable other innovations such as heat recovery. Combining cooling and heating synergies is highly energy and resource-efficient, and an affordable solution to help stabilize the wider energy system. Consider the next two examples of solutions that do exactly this.

Looking into the future with heating

Remember the 'hand behind the fridge' illustration? The cooling process produces heat. Traditionally, the heat is not used, just released into the air. Heat recovery is an innovative process by which we recover wasted heat and integrate it into the local energy system. This is a new and attractive way to make cooling more efficient.

Think about your local supermarket. Its refrigeration system generates a lot of excess heat while it cools down your ice-cream and frozen pizza. With a heat recovery solution, supermarkets can instead recycle that heat and use it to warm the store or provide hot tap water. For example, heat recovery from milk cooling systems can be used to pre-heat washing water, giving energy savings of 60%. Supermarkets can also sell heat to local heating plants and distribute it through district energy systems. In the end, heat recovery solutions can save energy for other uses and reduce pressure in the cooling system.

Buildings are part of the solution

What if buildings could deliver more energy than they use? We already know the growing demand for space cooling calls for technologies that can maximize energy efficiency. But did you also know that buildings offer the flexibility necessary for more innovative solutions, and can play a significant role in smart and integrated energy systems?

We can change cooling demand by starting with buildings. District energy is a future-proof system, connecting electricity, heating and cooling, demand and supply, all while utilizing big data to forecast and level out system peaks to increase efficiency dramatically. The same supermarket that uses a heat recovery solution, if integrated into the larger energy system, can unlock excess capacities that amount to 70% of a compressor’s cooling capacity.

These kinds of innovative, smart solutions require collaboration and a collective mindset. All the technologies exist today, but they are mostly utilized in "silo" fashion. Unlocking the enormous synergies derived from true connectivity and collaboration can turn a problem into a solution. It can lead the way to smarter, more efficient energy systems all over the world.

Achieving efficient and sustainable cooling for all

Increasing the availability of energy-efficient cooling technology is the solution to avoid facing a "cold crunch", as the IEA calls it. System thinking must be front and centre of energy efficiency solutions. Integrating heating and cooling sectors can deliver huge efficiency gains. Cooling is not luxury - it is an essential part of our modern society. If we manage to do it sustainably, we can also keep the planet cool.

The technology is already available, and we need to call on governments to do more around efficiency. Policy interventions can address the problems that result from the growing demand for space cooling, and can have a significant and rapid global impact. The right policy action is critical to ensure a sustainable path to the future of cooling, and allow people to stay comfortable without straining energy systems or the planet.

Building codes that reduce cooling needs, and implementation and enforcement of efficiency standards for ACs are key to meeting the world´s space-cooling demand in a sustainable fashion. The average energy efficiency of the global stock of ACs could more than double between now and 2050. But without strong regulatory measures, efficiency could still be 40% below that of the most efficient ACs on the market today. The technology is available. From where I sit now, only policy action can put us on a more sustainable track.