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UN Environment fights to cut cooling and heating emissions

by Kathrine

Cooling and heating are—for those lucky enough to have them—a lifesaver, keeping children healthy, vaccines stable, food fresh, energy supplies stable, economies productive and environments clean.

But there is a cruel irony at play. Cooling and heating systems consume over 50 per cent of building energy and run largely on fossil fuels—at a level of 84 per cent in the European Union, for example. Consequently, they are pushing our planet’s temperature up to dangerous levels.

We can expect more greenhouse gas emissions from the sector as the planet warms and middle classes expand in developing economies. We need this growth to provide equitable access to the 1.1 billion people who face imminent threats from a lack of cooling.

With energy consumption in the refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump sectors expected to surge 33 times by 2100, we need to build up renewable energy and energy efficiency to avoid runaway climate change. This is possible, as the work of UN Environment’s District Energy in Cities Initiative is showing in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India and the 14 other countries where it works.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina’s second-largest city, Banja Luka, district energy—a network of underground pipes that carry hot or cold water to multiple buildings—keeps around 20,000 residents warm when winter bites hard. But the 35-year-old system has relied on fuel oil to power its creaky and inefficient boilers. The Initiative teamed up with the city, the UN Environment-hosted Climate Technology Centre and Network and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to change this.

Through the partnership, the city attracted US$22 million in investment—a US$9.5 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the rest from the private sector—for a district heating network that runs on renewable energy. The 49 megawatt system, which uses locally sourced biomass, came online in March 2018. This increased the share of renewables by 75 per cent, reducing CO2 emissions by 91 per cent and saving up to US$1 million annually in reduced fuel costs. It also improved air quality by cutting sulphur dioxide emissions by 94 per cent.

“The intervention of the District Energy in Cities Initiative and partners enabled us to overcome long-standing barriers to modernizing our district heating system and attract the international investment and expertise needed,” said Igor Radojičić, Mayor of Banja Luka.

With this success under its belt, the Initiative is expanding its work. One of the biggest impacts from this expansion could come in India, where, according to the country’s draft National Cooling Action Plan, space cooling demand will rise 11 times by 2037. District cooling, already used in cities from Amman to Stockholm, is on the table as a viable option to meet this demand.

Based on feasibility studies, two projects identified in the pilot city Thane are being taken to market for a combined investment of US$50 million. Once built, these projects could save 30,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, phase out harmful refrigerants and give customers cost savings of over 10 per cent each year.

“District energy will dramatically cut energy costs for our businesses and public buildings, increase urban resilience and deliver significant environmental benefits,” said Sanjeev Jaiswal, Municipal Commissioner, City of Thane. “We hope to pioneer the technology’s development for the benefit of all cities in India.”

UN Environment is also backing another process to make the cooling industry more climate-friendly: the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. This legally binding expansion to the treaty that protects our ozone layer can avoid up to 0.4°C of global warming this century by reducing the use of powerful climate-warming refrigerants known as hydrofluorocarbons by 80 per cent.

It could avoid even more warming by improving the energy efficiency of new equipment that will need to be designed. This is built into the Amendment, which had 65 ratifications by the end of 2018. UN Environment is supporting countries to adopt energy efficiency standards during the transition.

Increased district cooling use is central to the Amendment. The Kigali Cooling Efficiency Programme, a group of philanthropists supporting the Amendment by helping low- and middle-income countries with the transition, is the most recent donor to support the Initiative, backing it to accelerate investment in district cooling in Egypt.

Ultimately, cooling and heating present huge opportunities to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. With pledges under the Paris Agreement only taking the world one third of the way towards the cuts needed to limit climate change to 2°C, we have to seize them.

This article is part of a series of stories highlighting UN Environment’s work and published in the 2018 Annual Report.