Office skyscraper Reflection in the sunlight. New York City

Primer for Space Cooling

Why and How to Transition to Sustainable Cooling Solutions

Access to space cooling is a critical development need and an issue of equity in a warming world. A significant portion of the population today lives with dramatically lower access to cooling in relation to their need. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that at 1.5°C of warming, 2.3 billion people could be both exposed and vulnerable to heat wave events—a threshold that could be reached as early as 2030.

There is mounting evidence that this huge unmet need for cooling—dominant in developing countries in the tropics—impacts the health, education, productivity, and economic development of a nation, thus, underscoring that cooling is essential to achieving many of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

In response to the unmet and growing need for thermal comfort in the hot regions of the world, the global energy use for space cooling is projected to jump from 2,020 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2016 to 6,200 TWh in 2050—an astounding 300 percent increase. This growth must be addressed with carefully designed strategies and solutions to avoid severe economic, power system, and environmental impacts.

Against this backdrop, the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) published the Primer for Space Cooling. The Primer highlights sustainable cooling solutions that can provide greater access to cooling while avoiding the considerable and disruptive impacts on energy systems and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions that would result from business-as-usual growth in cooling.


The Opportunity Cost of Today’s Space Cooling Practices is Immense

Technologies and strategies exist that can deliver today’s space-cooling needs with less than half the energy use, avoiding nearly 500 GW of generation capacity, while delivering a lower life-cycle cost to users and consumers—however these remain largely unexploited. A high-level analysis by RMI highlights that if we had switched to commercially available high-efficiency technology and made building envelope improvements achievable today, using technologies and improvements with proven lower life-cycle costs:

  • The energy required to deliver today’s space cooling could have been reduced by about 58 percent (or 1,177 terawatt hours), cutting the current total indirect emissions (1,135 million tons CO2) from space cooling operation in
  • Consumers could have saved substantially in life-cycle costs—with a potential reduction of 50 percent or even more in some markets.

While it is not possible to recover this opportunity cost of the past, the Primer makes an urgent case for acting now to make the shift to sustainable space-cooling practices, to avoid increasing the opportunity cost into the future.

An integrative approach is foundational to making the shift to address space cooling sustainably. This approach calls for reducing the cooling loads of buildings by applying building efficiency measures that enhance thermal performance, serving the cooling load as efficiently as possible through using the most appropriate cooling solution and the most efficient cooling equipment available, and optimizing the performance of cooling through their operation. Such an approach would maximize potential benefits and should be pursued to the fullest extent possible.


The Barriers Behind a Lack of Market demand for Sustainable Space Cooling and Strategies to Overcome Them

Space cooling is an integral part of energy efficiency in buildings—particularly in hot climates where cooling could represent up to 70 percent of the total energy load in buildings. Therefore, the interventions to promote building-specific sustainable space cooling may not be so different from those for enhancing overall building energy efficiency. However, space cooling has some unique attributes, including the impact on energy systems in terms of driving peak load, the role of refrigerants and their impact on emissions, and the ability to design cooling solutions at an urban or community level (where cooling can be provided more efficiently and with a lower greenhouse gas footprint over multiple buildings).

The challenges of scaling up or investing in sustainable space-cooling practices can be fundamentally attributed to a lack of market demand for sustainable space cooling, which results from a number of underlying market barriers. These underlying market barriers are interrelated and reinforcing, and are also the core reason why market solutions and enablers—such as financial instruments and policy measures—are necessary:

  • Lack of awareness about the broad benefits of sustainable space cooling
  • Lack of transparency about the cost savings of energy-efficient buildings and sustainable cooling equipment
  • First-cost bias due to a lack of clarity or understanding of life-cycle costs, which directs attention disproportionately to first costs
  • Split incentives where the purchaser of the cooling solution will not be responsible for the operational costs of utilization
  • Lack of valuation of efficiency where efficiency of buildings and building systems is typically not considered in purchasing and leasing decisions
  • Complexity of choice due to multiple building typologies and technology options
  • Misaligned policies that can inadvertently hinder the adoption of energy efficiency and sustainable space-cooling practices

The Primer identifies three overarching strategies to address these barriers and promote sustainable space cooling:

  • A supportive policy and regulatory environment is a critical enabler of the right ecosystem to scale up access to sustainable space-cooling practices. Interventions in this category, in effect, stimulate the demand for sustainable space-cooling solutions.
  • Even when the right policy and regulatory systems are in place, financing and enabling mechanisms are often required to support and enable broader access to sustainable space-cooling practices. Interventions in this category make resources available to enable demand to be satisfied.
  • Using the appropriate supporting instrument interventions—such as enhancing consumer and stakeholder awareness, strengthening institutional and professional capacities, and promoting technology advancements—in parallel with policy interventions and financing can amplify their impact and achieve intended benefits. Interventions in this category help stimulate the supply for sustainable space-cooling solutions.

Within these three broad categories, the Primer introduces 20 interventions that provide options and pathways for countries that are seeking to make the leap to sustainable space cooling. For those interested in learning more about the interventions, a supplement to the Primer, the Compendium, contains detailed information of each of the interventions, including over 100 examples from across the world—both in developed and developing countries—highlighting real-life successful implementation and the respective key insights learned. The Compendium also seeks to serve as a reference for readers seeking more detailed information on sustainable space cooling.

While each country will chart its own path toward sustainable space cooling, together the Primer and the Compendium highlight the need for a comprehensive approach with interventions that are tailored to a country’s local needs, contexts, and opportunities. In a warming world with escalating demand for thermal comfort, the publications underscore the critical need to act now to make the shift to sustainable space-cooling practices and lock in a low-energy and low-climate-impact pathway toward access to space cooling for all.

Download the Primer for Space Cooling