DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — More than 60 countries signed onto a pledge to sharply reduce cooling-related carbon emissions at COP28 this week. China — the world’s largest producer of air conditioners — wasn’t one of them.
The agreement announced Wednesday at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai seeks to reduce cooling-related emissions by 68% by 2050 compared to 2022 levels. Cooling accounts for one-fifth of the world’s electricity consumption and is expected by the U.N. Environment Program to double by 2050.
About one-third of the world’s population is exposed to deadly heatwaves, while over 1 billion people have no access to any cooling technology, according to UNEP.
Despite suffering record heatwaves earlier this year, China has not committed to the pledge at COP28 because Beijing sees a lack of accountability in previous such agreements, according to Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“Like the deal to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, China signed that in its joint statement with the U.S., but at COP28 it’s China’s diplomatic habit to not agree to deals,” Li said.
The climate expert said cooling presents “a massive challenge” for China’s attempt to rein in energy consumption, as the demand for air conditioning and cooling systems surges during heatwaves.
According to data from the International Energy Agency, cooling demand accounts for over 10% of China’s total electricity consumption growth since 2010, with cooling-related carbon emissions jumping fivefold from 2000 to 2018, mostly from China’s growing coal-fired power generation.
“Cooling is a very important issue for China’s path of energy transition. It has to think about how to reduce its demand for ACs and improve energy efficiency,” Li said.
China’s cooling policy
China launched a National Green Cooling Action Plan in 2019 with a target of boosting the energy efficiency of its cooling products by 25% and that of public buildings by 30% by 2030 compared to 2022 levels. The suggested actions include upgrading energy efficiency standards and international cooperation.
China currently leads the market in manufacturing air conditioners, producing about 70% of those sold around the world. As global temperatures increase due to the burning of fossil fuels, the demand for cooling products is expected to soar.
While it’s too early to tell whether China’s cooling plans are working, reforms to its energy performance standard have “transitioned China’s domestic market almost completely towards inverter air-conditioners with expected energy savings of about 20% to 30% which are typical for such air conditioners,” said Nihar Shah, presidential director of the Global Cooling Efficiency Program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Even though China did not sign the latest pledge, Beijing agreed to further improve the energy efficiency of air conditioners in an agreement announced in early November following talks in Sunnyland, California, between U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua.
As part of that agreement, the two countries promised to work together to phase down hydrofluorocarbons, a type of planet-warming greenhouse gas that is commonly used in refrigerators and air-conditioners.
But to effectively slash cooling-related emissions, Li said, China must also ramp up its generation of electricity from renewable sources in order to meet the growing demand. Even though China already has the world’s largest renewable energy capacity, fossil fuels still account for over 80% of its generation, and the country signs off on a new coal plant permit every two weeks to ensure energy security.
China is adapting to future heatwaves through the strengthening of early warning systems, research on health and climate adaptation, urban green space, urban planning with attention to space, and other measures.
But Li said the motivation for implementing such measures is limited “because local governors want to achieve more short-term results. It’s also not as easy to quantify the results of adaptation measures. There’s no set target and it’s highly localized.”
Future of cooling
Other initiatives to reduce demand for air conditioning include “passive building,” a concept launched in Germany in the 1980s that uses insulation, natural shading, ventilation and other measures to reduce cooling needs.
The U.N. Environment Program has calculated that passive cooling measures can reduce the demand for cooling capacity in 2050 by about one-fourth, and eliminate 1.3 billion tons of carbon emissions.
Passive cooling measures have been employed in China since 2014, but researchers say it’s still in the development stage. But with more new sustainable buildings being constructed, they say the design concept will be used increasingly.
Experts also suggest the use of decentralized cooling to reduce demand in China. This type of system allows for units to operate only when someone is in a room.
“Countries and the cooling sector must act now to ensure low-carbon cooling growth,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, in a statement issued in Dubai this week.
“Fortunately, the solutions are available today. Getting energy efficient, sustainable cooling right offers an opportunity to cut global warming, improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and realize huge financial savings.”