Refrigeration: An Essential Technology for Global Health?

Refrigeration: An Essential Technology for Global Health?

Last summer we saw unprecedented temperatures in Europe that broke records in several countries, such as 41°C in the UK on July 19, an all-time high, and 35.6°C in Denmark, the hottest day since 1941.

May saw the hottest-ever temperatures for France and Spain, enduring bouts of over 40C for several days. The heatwave sparked a series of wildfires, fueled by a drought that is still worrying the entire continent today (although it’s now early October). It’s even worse around the world. For example, in India, which we both recently visited, the devastating effects of the March heatwave resulted in deaths, starvation and major power outages.

Cooling is not a luxury, even if you often get that impression from the media. Refrigeration as a luxury should be viewed as a relic from the past. And yet there remains an alarming lack of understanding of the sheer effect of cooling. To put it bluntly, as noted in the latest Chilling Prospect report, one in seven people is at risk from life-threatening temperatures or broken cold chains. Neither people nor the planet can afford to remain idle when it comes to sustainable cooling. And to round the numbers off, around 500,000 people die each year from heat, according to a study in The Lancet, and that number will only increase as global average temperature rises above 1.5°C and 2°C warming in the 2030s and 40s Years.

But that’s not the only problem… The cold food chain, or lack thereof, is perhaps the greatest paradox. Today, 13% of all food production is lost due to the lack of a cold chain. Solving this problem alone could feed 950 million people. When you consider that 800 million people are currently undernourished, the numbers speak for themselves. The climate impact is also massive: if food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The challenge, especially in developing countries: a lack of awareness of the need for a cold chain and the hurdle of initial investment costs, for example for cold rooms.

Space cooling raises another red flag. Since the year 2000, the demand for space cooling has increased by up to 4% per year. It is the fastest growing cause of energy consumption in buildings. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), there are currently around 2 billion air conditioners in service around the world, with the vast majority in the US, China and Japan. Now it’s middle-income countries like India, Indonesia and South Africa that are driving demand. And here’s another paradox: the more air conditioners are on, the more our inner cities heat up, leading to a vicious circle.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can ensure the world has access to cooling and remains carbon neutral in 2050; We already have the technologies that make this goal possible.

A key common denominator, for both space cooling and the cold chain, is the electricity required to run refrigeration equipment. A large part of the sustainable increase in cooling capacity can be achieved through the expansion of renewable electricity generation and the timely adjustment and reduction of energy consumption.

With a deepening global energy and climate crisis, our leaders must figure out how to stay warm or cool based on season and geography. And as we are already facing an explosion in cooling demand, the need to expand the cold chain will and must increase with a growing population and economy alike. Cooling is not only necessary, but also one of the greatest social opportunities of our time. It brings health, growth and food security for the world population. We have to take it seriously and do much more to spread sustainable, energy-efficient and climate-friendly technologies worldwide. If we fail in this task, that figure of 500,000 per year will surely increase from year to year. We cannot and must not allow that.

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