The story of summer in the World’s northern hemisphere is that it’s hot. Too hot. The current weather warnings continue for southeastern Europe, where temperatures reached 42.3 degrees Celsius in Croatia, and 42 degrees in Spain and Italy. For many Europeans, the heat wave hearkens memories of Europe’s 2003 heat crisis; for others, it’s more a warning of the future than a deadly past, and arrived with the research news that heat-related death tolls may be 50 times worse by the end of the century.
The Chinese city of Shanghai saw the hottest temperature ever recorded last month at 40.9 degrees, setting a 145-year benchmark even as a new wave is on its way. Temperatures spiked in the Pacific Northwest in the Americas, where most people don’t have air conditioning in historically cooler cities like Seattle. The city saw a high of 40.6 last week, with air quality warnings because of smoke from wildfires.
On a warming planet where heat is the story, there’s a corollary that’s not getting as much attention. It should, especially in the fast-growing cities of the developing world, the cities in Africa and India and Southeast Asia where some of the most troubling research findings point to a future heat too extreme for habitation.
And that story is air conditioning. It may seem counterintuitive in the swaths of sub-Saharan Africa that still don’t have reliable electricity for basic needs; it may seem even more insensitive to the suffering already experienced by migrants in the Libyan desert or refugees in the parched and pleading Horn of Africa.
Yet scientists and sustainability experts know that the heat will translate to more demand for cooling. It’s exactly what just happened in affluent, urbane and “techie” Seattle, and it’s what Africa and Asia will need as well.
Counting on Kigali to keep it cool
Africa’s greatest challenges may lie in its cities, and that’s where the heat wave impacts continue to grow. Some of that risk can be managed with passive cooling strategies in urban structures, but when market analysts talk about air conditioning, they talk about “hot spots” and heat. It’s what’s driving sales in China, it’s why southern Europe’s demand is up, it is why India and Africa are poised for growth in the sector.
Rachel Kyte, CEO of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative, pointed out last week – amid all the heat warnings – that cooling isn’t a luxury good when people are suffering and dying. “It is a fundamental component of modern life — from cold supply chains for fresh food, to safe storage for life-saving vaccines and medicines, to cooler, safer work and educational environments that can elevate productivity,” she wrote in a Time Ideas column. We need to provide more access to cooling, and that means more access to electricity.
It also means safer technologies so that air conditioning and refrigerants aren’t an even bigger climate problem, and those solutions rely on moving away from dangerous hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and their key role in global warming. Widely praised as among the greatest win-wins in the fight against climate change, the HFC phaseout is a goal of last year’s Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol and will go into effect on January 1, 2019, once ratified by at least 20 nations. So far they include Rwanda and Mali, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. The European Union announced its intent to ratify in July, and with its member nations is expected to ensure that the Kigali amendment will guide the cooler-planet effort.
To that end, Kyte’s organization recently launched Cooling for All, and will convene its first panel on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and Climate Week NYC next month. They’ll seek to align better cooling solutions with efficient energy technologies and the overarching sustainability development goals (SDGs). That’s because in the global-warming future, cooling won’t be a convenience, or a luxury, or the mark of middle-class lives in China, Europe or the U.S. It will literally mean the difference between life and death in a hot world.
Turning the heat up on climate action
Many scientists agree that the worst impacts of climate change may still be avoided, and there’s plenty of room for optimism and hope if the world acts now. They also understand that it’s too late to avoid them all. A study published in Nature Climate Change last week estimated just a 5 percent chance that global temperature increases by the end of the century will remain below the 2°C target set at COP21 in Paris. The study based its findings on a model that assumes some actions to mitigate emissions are in place and working, and the authors note that the data is not drawn from a “business as usual” scenario.
“Even if the 2°C target isn’t met, action is very important,” said Adrian Raftery, a lead researcher from University of Washington, in an interview with The Guardian. “The more the temperature increases, the worse the impacts will be. We would warn against any tendency to use our results to say that we won’t avoid 2°C, and so it’s too late to do anything. On the contrary, avoiding the higher temperature increases that our model envisages is even more important, and also requires urgent action.”
That’s a welcome message amid the impending doom of what seems a deluge of reports warning of an African climate exodus, or the intensity of more frequent and severe African heat waves, or that even the dogs won’t hunt. Raftery affirms an overall optimism about opportunity that can be focused on delivering clean energy to empower Africans and build the sustainable communities needed for a climate-resilient future. It’s hard but imperative work, and committing to Kigali is an important key to a cooler world.