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1 in 7 people globally at high risk due to lack of access to cooling

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These numbers are set to rise by 2030. Sustainable Energy for All’s new report Chilling Prospects reveals the escalating threat from lack of access to cooling on people’s ability to survive extreme heat and warns that this is the decisive decade to deliver fast and sustainable cooling solutions.

The world needs to rapidly shift to sustainable technologies so that access to cooling does not worsen the state of global climate change. Image credit: Energepic | Pexels
The world needs to rapidly shift to sustainable technologies so that access to cooling does not worsen the state of global climate change. Image credit: Energepic | Pexels

Access to cooling is now recognised as an urgent global challenge with 1.2 billion people facing extreme and potentially fatal risk from heat.

SEforALL’s annual report Chilling Prospects: Tracking Sustainable Cooling for All 2022 shows that the risks to the most vulnerable from extreme heat are growing because of a lack of access to sustainable cooling. People will remain at high risk if we fail to meet key SDGs that enable access to cooling: universal electrification and eradicating extreme poverty.

The Chilling Prospects report assessed 76 countries with cooling access challenges and found that, globally, 1.2 billion people do not have adequate access to cooling—threatening their ability to survive extreme heat, store nutritious food, or receive a safe vaccine. For the first time, Chilling Prospects forecasts access to cooling risks in 2030. It finds that current trends will leave more people at high risk at the end of the decade, but a pathway that delivers universal electricity access and ends extreme poverty by 2030 would reduce the number of people at high risk by 36 percent – more than 450 million people.

Launched during a joint event with UNEP-led Cool Coalition the SEforALL Forum in Kigali, home to the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain, the report is a stark reminder that for millions of people, daily life cannot stop when temperatures hit heatwave levels. For those living below the poverty line or without access to reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy, their ability to adapt and thrive is held back without access to cooling.

Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and special representative of the UN secretary-general for SEforALL, said: “Cooling is a make-or-break issue for the Sustainable Development Goals and the environment. With one in every seven people at risk from life-threatening temperatures or broken cold chains, neither people nor the planet can afford inaction on sustainable cooling.”

Dr Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, minister of environment, Republic of Rwanda added: “Chilling Prospects once again provides exciting insights on major sustainable cooling developments. I am proud to showcase Rwanda’s innovative financing for consumers coupled with ambitions regulations for cooling appliances, as well as the comprehensive work of the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-chain that is headquartered in Kigali and pan-African in scope.”

Disproportionate risk across the global South and its megacities

Life on a warming planet means more extreme weather and a greater likelihood of devastating heat waves. In 2014, the World Health Organisation predicted that 12 000 people would lose their lives annually due to heatwaves. Eight years on, we know the scale of the challenge is greater: new research from Lancet shows that extreme heat caused the deaths of 356 000 people in 2019 alone.

As confirmed by the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Adaptation, the risks of heat extremes are even higher in cities. By 2050, 68 percent of the global population is expected to live in urban areas, with the number of megacities exceeding 10 million inhabitants expected to reach 43—many of these in developing regions. In rapidly growing urban areas in Asia, Africa and Latin America, vulnerability for poor households is aggravated by air pollution, the urban heat island effect, limited access to good-quality built environment and key cooling infrastructure.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “We need everybody acting under one vision to decarbonise the cooling sector by 2050. A vision of a world in which we keep our planet, homes and workplaces cool by combining the right technologies with the power of the natural world.”

The risk is increasingly disproportionate, putting communities and individuals suffering from extreme poverty, who already struggle with access to nutritious food and adequate healthcare, most at risk from a lack of access to cooling. Solving the problem is an economic, environmental, and social challenge.

But solutions exist:

  • Across the global South, powering health facilities with off-grid renewable energy and boosting efficiency of off-grid appliances would deliver reliable and cost-effective cooling in countries with electricity access gaps, but investment is needed now to realise this by 2030.
  • Nature-based solutions such as tree planting help green urban areas and increase access to shade.
  • Technology-based solutions such as affordable, hyper-efficient air conditioners, well-designed buildings, and district cooling systems.

Investment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will save lives

Such solutions are vital to reach the UN’s SDG 7: Access to Affordable and Clean Energy, and investment and commitment are needed now.

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to wipe out poverty, fight inequality, and tackle climate change; they were adopted shortly before the Paris Agreement—the international treaty on climate change that aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C. They must be rolled out rapidly and at scale to save lives, but they must also be delivered in a sustainable way that ensures solutions – including for cooling – do not increase emissions, and therefore temperatures.

Brian Dean, head of energy efficiency and cooling at SEforALL, highlighted the need to move swiftly on cooling solutions powered by sustainable energy sources: “Accelerating efficient and renewable-powered sustainable cooling devices and deploying passive and nature-based solutions to reduce need for active cooling will play a major role in decarbonising the cooling sector and achieving SDG 7 by 2030.”

Damilola Ogunbiyi added: “The data shows that business as usual means there will be more vulnerable people by 2030, making our efforts to deliver SDG 7 and the Paris Agreement more challenging. In a warming world, both equitable economies and just, inclusive clean energy transitions rely on rapidly delivering sustainable cooling for all.

“We also need to rapidly shift to sustainable technologies, so access to cooling does not worsen global climate change. The good news is, many solutions already exist today to reduce risk, improve lives, and reduce emissions. And if we achieve universal electrification and end poverty by 2030, we will relieve almost 450 million people from extreme risks to their health and safety due to a lack of access to cooling. We must all commit to urgent action.”