AI’s role in making good on the Global Cooling Pledge
Image: Jennifer Campagnolo for BrainBox AI
Cooling: Can’t live with its emissions, can’t live without it. The latter was certainly true this past summer, which was recorded as Earth's hottest since recordings started 1880. But the very thing that’s keeping us cool is also rapidly heating our planet.
In fact, space cooling is one of the world’s main drivers of increased electricity demand and emissions in buildings, contributing to over 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Particularly concerning are the emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which have up to a 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the planet than CO2. The issue of refrigerant leakage, often overlooked, is significant; the average annual leak rate from a typical supermarket's refrigeration system, for example, can be as high as 25%.
Yet, as global temperatures climb, so does our demand for cooling, exacerbating the problem it seeks to solve and presenting a particularly thorny challenge that requires a unified global effort to overcome.
Air conditioning: The mounting challenge
This cooling challenge is only set to intensify. An expected 20% increase in building floor area by 2030 will result in a staggering expansion of space needing cooling. Additionally, it’s predicted that air conditioning ownership is set to triple by 2050, emitting between 4.4 and 6.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
But what are we to do when cooling has literally become a lifeline? According to SEforALL, over 1 billion people are at high risk from extreme heat due to a lack of access to the kind of adequate cooling. This is where understanding the concept of wet bulb temperature becomes crucial. Wet bulb temperature, a measure that combines temperature and humidity to indicate the threshold beyond which the human body cannot cool itself, has significant implications for these vulnerable communities. Exposure to wet bulb temperatures that exceed human tolerance can lead to severe health risks, underscoring the urgency of efficient and accessible cooling solutions to protect from extreme heat, keep food fresh, vaccines safe, and employees productive.
The danger posed by rising temperatures and humidity levels, is far more immediate and severe than many realize. And it’s a key factor in assessing the impact of climate change on human health and the need for effective cooling strategies.
With this said, clearly the answer to the cooling challenge lies not in reducing the number of cooling systems, but in making those systems significantly more efficient and sustainable. And this, for the most part, is what has led to the creation of the Global Cooling Pledge, unveiled at the recent COP28 summit in Dubai. The pledge marks the world's first collective focus on climate-warming emissions from cooling, which includes air conditioning and refrigeration for food and medicine.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Already, over 60 countries, from the US and Canada to Nigeria and Vietnam, have committed to reducing their cooling-related emissions across all sectors by at least 68% globally by 2050.
Sustainable cooling: A hot topic
The performance of cooling equipment has already improved dramatically over the last decade, as evidenced in advancing standards, equipment innovation and best practices in building energy performance. However, the pace of this reduction needs to triple by the year 2030 if we want to meet environmental targets.
Of course, we can put policies in place to ensure that each air conditioning system manufactured from hereon in meets or exceeds certain energy efficiency standards, but the question remains: What do we do with the existing, inefficient ones? Replacing them would mean disposing of them properly, which remains an issue. In fact, around 90% of greenhouse gas emissions from refrigerants comes from end-of-life leaking.
So, we’re stuck with a generation of inefficient cooling systems that aren’t just straining our energy resources, they’re also inflating operational costs and emissions. Clearly, the answer must lie in making our existing systems as efficient as possible, ensuring that they’re well maintained to avoid emissions-intensive leaks. We also need something that will make them more flexible as we increasingly transition towards renewables and away from high global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants.
AI: Bridging the gap in cooling efficiency
One of the most promising solutions to these issues lies in leveraging AI. That’s because AI is an extremely versatile and powerful tool that can render existing cooling systems more efficient and sustainable with very limited upfront investment. It can also help detect and predict refrigerant leaks, integrate with renewable energy sources, manage demand-response, and enhance overall building energy management.
We see giants like Google embracing the AI for sustainable cooling movement through its application of DeepMind AI in its data centers, which has led to a significant reduction in energy usage for cooling. We also see smaller companies like HelloFresh using AI to enhance their existing commercial refrigeration systems, reducing their leak rates, maintenance costs, and food waste.
Given that this kind of AI technology is highly scalable and can work with existing systems, it has the potential to bridge the gap between outdated cooling systems and newer, potentially more expensive, sustainable retrofits and replacements. In short, this flexibility means that AI is uniquely positioned to play a major role in making sustainable cooling more universally accessible.
And a flexible, rapidly scalable solution is exactly what we need to confront the challenges posed by the increasing demand for cooling in a warming world. AI's versatility and impact offer a path to transform existing cooling systems, making them more efficient and adaptable – able to bridge the gap between outdated cooling systems and those manufactured to a new set of standards.
In fact, AI’s cost-effectiveness and flexibility positions it as a central player in democratizing sustainable cooling. This, for the most part, is what makes its deployment an immediate, accessible, and practical step towards more sustainable cooling – and a crucial step in realizing the promises made in the Global Cooling Pledge.
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