As the pandemic drives up poverty rates, a lack of access to cooling technology has now put more than a billion people at increased risk of heat stress, food insecurity, job loss, and COVID-19 infection.
“In a warming world, access to sustainable cooling is not a luxury,” writes Sustainable Energy for All (SEforAll) in the release for its new report, titled “Chilling Prospects: Tracking Sustainable Cooling for All 2021”. Sustainable cooling includes air conditioners and refrigerators that abide by the landmark Kigali Amendment to ban climate-busting hydrofluorocarbons, as well as measures to double down on efficiency standards while the world makes the transition to alternate refrigerants.
For too many, however, any kind of cooling, sustainable or not, remains hard to come by—especially in the Global South. The report finds that the pandemic has added 50 million people to the ranks of those who are at high risk for the devastating consequences of extreme temperatures combined with no cooling or refrigeration.
The crisis reaches beyond air conditioning. “Lack of access to adequate cold chains for life-saving COVID-19 vaccines is one of the most immediate concerns facing developing countries and indeed the world,” SEforAll notes. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, “85 poor countries will not have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines before 2023,” including all but six African economies.
“This challenge will ultimately impact the social and economic recovery if left unresolved,” said Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and special representative of the UN Secretary-General for SEforAll and co-chair of UN-Energy. “We must collectively work to increase access to energy-efficient and sustainable cooling solutions to protect against a prolonged pandemic and to support efforts to Recover Better.”
In compiling the Chilling Prospects report, SEforAll found that, over the past year, the global population of rural poor increased by 31 million to reach 355 million, with the poorest citizens of Bangladesh, India, and Nigeria at greatest risk from the conjoined impacts of the pandemic and heat stress.
Around the world, the pandemic has pushed another 19 million urban poor into this high-risk category, with Algeria, China, India, and the Republic of Congo witnessing the greatest increases. In total, writes SEforAll, some 732 million urban poor now live with “sporadic access to intermittent electricity supply,” a situation that can lead to “food spoilage, poor nutrition, and food poisoning.”
In addition to the 50 million additional people who are now experiencing poverty, another 304 million have lost their hold on middle class security, most often in China, India, and more than 20 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. SEforAll adds that this shrinking of the global middle class is bad news for efforts to advance sustainable cooling technologies in the face of the climate crisis.
In its coverage of the report, the Thomson Reuters Foundation notes that Chilling Prospects is the first study on cooling to offer highly granular geographic detail on specific states and districts and their various risk levels. This data could help policy-makers “triage” limited funds, said SEforAll energy specialist Alvin Jose.
Reuters says the report also highlights the increasing number of jurisdictions responding to the risks caused by a lack of sustainable cooling technologies. Today, some 20 countries are developing National Cooling Action Plans (NCAPs) in an effort to “deliver efficient and sustainable cooling and bring essential life-preserving services like vaccines and safe food to all people.”
One of the sustainable cooling solutions spotlighted by SEforAll is Indonesia’s Million Cool Roofs Challenge—a plan to paint the roofs across the country a bright, heat-reflecting white. Such passive cooling solutions are now “reducing indoor temperatures between 2 and 3°C in Jakarta’s low-cost housing,” and by as much as 10°C in industrial settings.
In another successful project in Cameroon, a youth-led team produced a solar-powered, non-toxic refrigerator that “achieves 45% efficiency, provides reliable cooling for vaccines and goods in off-grid settings, and at scale could store over 360,000 vaccine doses to rural areas,” notes SEforAll.
“This solution can also be applied to food systems and reduce energy needs for food storage, while using excess energy to power lighting and charging phones.”