Cooling makes the world go round. While it might not be the sexiest subject, refrigeration and air conditioning are critical to almost every aspect of our lives as citizens, consumers, and employees. These systems allow us to live in safety and comfort. They ensure that the food we eat stays fresh and the medicines we need can travel long distances safely.
That’s why this year’s theme for World Refrigeration Day (26th June) is #coolingmatters. The annual campaign, formed by ex-president of the UK’s Institute of Refrigeration Steve Gill, aims to raise the profile of the cooling sector by drawing attention to the exceptional engineering and science that is all around us every day. Gill has said that he wants to make the public aware of cooling’s essential benefits and, specifically, how technology choices foster the environmental wellbeing of future generations.
A short history
Cooling’s importance stretches all the way back to ancient times and has enabled human progress ever since. Around 1775 BC, the Sumerians created ‘ice houses’ that featured a sophisticated drainage system and shallow pools to freeze water overnight.
Approximately 1,000 years later, the Scottish inventor William Cullen devised a system in which rapidly heating liquid to a gas could result in cooling – a scientific principle that underpins most modern-day refrigeration. Then, in 1803, American businessman Thomas Moore patented the “refrigerator”, an icebox that cooled dairy products intended for transport.
The real magic behind refrigeration is that it has made the world smaller. The development of the ‘cold chain’, the low-temperature-controlled supply chain, has enabled the safe and efficient passage of meat and fruit produce from distant places. Today, products such as New Zealand lamb are a common feature on the UK’s supermarket shelves, a development that would have been impossible without the emergence of the uninterrupted cold chain, from farm to fork.
But perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic provides the most powerful example of why cooling matters. Without the cold chain, it wouldn’t have been possible to store and transport life-saving vaccines and other vital medicines to healthcare providers and other caregivers, including the many temporary sites that were built or adapted to manage the increased demand for these health services.
Ensuring a sustainable future
Cooling also has a massive part to play in reducing global warming and averting climate disaster. Businesses that are now actively aiming to hit net zero targets over the next two-to-three decades can make significant progress by ensuring the refrigeration in their buildings and throughout their supply chains are as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.
Many built environment professionals are familiar with the statistic that 40 percent of total global carbon emissions come from buildings. Fewer know that the cooling industry is responsible for 10 percent of those total emissions, a fact that makes it a bigger polluter than aviation and shipping combined three times over.
The UN estimates that climate-change cooling could cut eight years’ worth of carbon emissions if the world makes the transition to super-efficient cooling equipment upgrades and ultra-low carbon refrigerants. That’s easier said than done.
Recently, the UK government reported that energy demand for cooling will get higher in the coming years, with the potential to match heating demand by 2060. The reason for this is not just continued globalisation and urbanisation but also the rise of mega trends such as the on-demand economy. As more companies build their on-demand capability in both customer-facing services and operations, the demand on the cold chain will intensify.
Moving forward, businesses need to consider the global warming potential of direct and indirect emissions from cooling systems.
Direct emissions are related to the type of refrigerant used, leakage and end-of-life recovery. Historically, refrigerants have been synthetics, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), but the global warming potential (GWP) of these solutions is high. The good news is that progress is happening, with a switch to next-gen alternatives, such as hydrofluoroolefin (HFO), and ‘natural’ refrigerants, including ammonia and carbon, now taking place. But the sector must exercise some caution. These newer alternatives represent the fourth generation of refrigerants and there’s still much to learn about their broader environmental impact.
It’s also worth highlighting the advantages that come with managing leakage and end-of-life recovery. The GWP of HFCs come from leakage, demonstrating just how crucial it is for high-quality equipment design, maintenance, and management practices.
However, the potential for more environmentally friendly refrigerants and upgrading maintenance will be limited unless it’s combined with changes to indirect emissions, referring to the energy sources that help power cooling systems. As a result, switching to greener indirect solutions is imperative. A great example is heat pumps. This increasingly popular and effective technology converts energy from natural sources, such as groundwater, into heat at a practical usable temperature. The waste heat from refrigeration systems can also be used for other heating systems.
The bottom line is that cooling matters. By identifying the right steps to greener refrigeration, we can ensure that it plays an even more crucial role in conserving the planet for future generations.