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The Hottest Year on Record Inspires Evolving Cooling Solutions

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at evolving cooling solutions to combat record heat.
Abigail Bassett
Jan 26, 2024 9 min read
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If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you know that on Friday last week, climate researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA announced that 2023 was the hottest year on record. According to the report, the global land and sea temperatures were 2.12 degrees F (1.18 degrees C) above those of the mid-19th century. The news came on the heels of a similar report from Copernicus, the European climate group, that showed that global temperatures also peaked at their highest levels in 2023.

Even though we discussed the potential rise in health risks associated with a warming world last week, it is not all bad news. Yes, the globe is warming at an alarming rate, but climate tech solutions in partnership with government policy may help make places that are becoming increasingly unsurvivable due to heat more comfortable.

The World is Getting Hotter, Making Population Centers Unbearable

While the heat in the oceans and on land has risen, causing untold suffering for plant and animal life, major cities around the world have been impacted the most by the rise in temperature.

According to researchers, more than half the global population suffered under climate-crisis-fueled heat conditions last year, with the poorest taking the brunt of it. Cooling poverty is not only a climate issue; it's also an equity issue, and it's on the rise around the world as the globe heats up. The Independent summed up the research report released by Climate Central last November, saying that more than "3.8 billion people across the world suffered extreme temperatures for over a month, while "nearly every living human" – around 98 percent of the world – was exposed to extreme heat at least once between June and August 2023."

That heat has pushed places within India and China to the brink of survivability, according to experts, compounding and exacerbating pollution problems like those that forced Mumbai, a city of 21 million people, to issue restrictions over a series of days to cut back on air pollution that turned the skies orange, last year.

It's not just overseas, either. The US Census released a report last July that noted that more than one-quarter of the population was “socially vulnerable” to rising temperatures. In August alone, more than 140 people died as a result of the heat, and experts say that the numbers were probably much higher than that.

A compounding issue is that as heat rises, people seek any way to get cool, and that includes using old, inefficient, and even dangerous air conditioners, putting a greater strain on inefficient power suppliers that use carbon-emitting energy sources like coal and oil. According to Forbes, global coal consumption returned to record levels last year, and oil consumption was on track to rise to 101.7 million barrels per day in 2023, according to the most recent report from the International Energy Agency, which only contributes to the warming of the planet.

Air Conditioning Tech is Old & Inefficient

Air conditioning technology has existed since the 1840s, when a Florida physician named Dr. John Gorrie began experimenting with using ice to cool patients in hospital rooms, according to the Department of Energy. His early solution required ice to be shipped from the northern lakes to Florida, which proved to be a logistical nightmare. While inefficient, it was the first attempt at air conditioning in the States.

Heat pumps were also developing around the same time. The first heat pump was built by Peter von Rittinger in 1856 while he was experimenting with using the latent heat of water vapor to evaporate salt brine. His technology was used in Austria to dry salt in salt marshes.

Fast forward to the 1960s and 1970s, and AC technology became available for homes (prior to that, it was too big and expensive). When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, new requirements were implemented to reduce energy consumption across the board, and the US got nationwide standards for AC units. Today, most still use HFCs (refrigerant chemicals), which, according to the UN, “have global warming potentials (GWPs) that are in the range of 1000 to 4000 times more powerful as greenhouse gasses than carbon dioxide.”

AC units were favored over heat pumps in the US because they could heat or cool a space quickly. While both technologies have evolved to become more efficient, affordable, and less polluting over time, both are over 100 years old and in need of an update to meet the demands of climate change. As the world gets hotter, more people use their AC units, which pump more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

In fact, according to a 2018 report by the IEA, energy demand from cooling is growing fast. “Without action to address energy efficiency, energy demand for space cooling will more than triple by 2050 – consuming as much electricity as all of China and India today,” the report notes.

New Air Conditioning Technology and Policies are on the Horizon

It’s not all bad news, though. Last week, Las Vegas was the center of the technology world as CES took over Sin City. One thing was clear from the event: AC technology is continuing to evolve. Companies are working on everything from more efficient heat pumps and air conditioners that use desiccants to remove humidity to solar windows that could both capture energy and keep interior spaces cooler.

There are plenty of start-ups working on innovative cooling and heating systems that offer both low- and high-tech solutions, too, thanks in part to programs like the Global Cooling Prize, the US Department of Energy's Cold Climate Heat Pump Challenge, and Fair Conditioning, an organization that offers resources for those looking for new ways to cool down.

Policy also plays a significant role in advancing cooling technology. India has become the first major nation to adopt a Cooling Action Plan aimed at reducing emissions and outlining plans for more sustainable cooling in the country. India has also incorporated the revival of ancient techniques like 'jali' into its modern building practices. This Indo-Islamic method, known for its intricate lattice work, significantly reduces energy consumption while applying passive cooling measures to lower heat in buildings.  In the US, the EPA recently updated efficiency requirements for AC and heating units, and any new units sold in 2024 will have to meet those standards.

There's no question that the clock is ticking as the globe heats up and more places around the world become unlivable due to heat, but thanks to technological advances, industry innovation, and government policies, more efficient, less polluting cooling is coming, and it's a vital part of the solution to making our warming planet livable.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett