The energy efficiency of air-conditionings needs to improve at least 50% in all markets to contribute to a net zero emissions scenario by 2050, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The report – “Space Cooling: more efforts needed” – shows the there is widespread lack of adoption of the most efficient technologies available on the market and calls for better policy measures that would support this transition.

Energy demand for space cooling has risen at an average pace of 4% per year since 2000, twice as quickly as for lighting or water heating, and the number of units in operation has more than doubled since the beginning of the century, reaching over 2.2 billion units in 2021, explains the report.

This data makes the sector critical and justifies a call for action at global, regional and national level, said the IEA.

Both global warming and economic growth are seen as likely drivers of this increase uptake in AC use and energy consumption, says the IEA report.

Energy consumption for space cooling has more than tripled since 1990, states the report, with significant emissions due to the electricity and refrigerants used in the equipment. In particular, indirect CO2e emissions from space cooling between 1990 and 2021 are estimated to be around 1Gt.

The report also notes that people in need of space cooling are frequently the ones with less access to air-conditioning or alternative space cooling solutions.

Share of population living in hot climate, 2021, and penetration of air-conditioners, 2000–2021. Source: International Energy Agency

The IEA envisions cooling equipment requiring one-third less energy and a decrease in emissions intensity per unit six times faster than over the previous decade to ensure reaching the net zero emissions scenario. On the refrigerant side, the agency pointed out that the Kigali Amendment is supporting the uptake of lower GWP solutions. The EU, India, China and more recently the U.S. have all ratified this legally binding environmental agreement.

Countries are adopting policies to incentivize the transition towards energy-efficient appliances, notably setting minimum energy performance standards (MEPs). However, these policies are often weak or absent in hot and humid countries where they would be most needed, the report underlines.

Residential space cooling covered by minimum energy performance standards, by final energy use, 2000–2021. International Energy Agency

Models estimate that a global uptake of split systems with propane (R290) would avoid an increase in in global temperature up to an average of 0.09°C (0.16°F) by the end of the century.

Heat pump needs

The IEA has released other reports on the progress of heating and cooling. For example, the agency calls for more efforts in the heat pump sector, specifying more is needed to reduce the GWP of refrigerants contained in the systems, working towards the adoption of “very low or zero GWP” refrigerant solutions.

The agency is also calling for more efforts in the overall heating sector, reporting that emissions from direct CO2e emissions from space and water heating in buildings reached an all-time high of 2.5Gt in 2021.

District heating is not on track to contribute to the net zero emissions scenario, according to the agency. In 2021 district heat production increased slowly by around 3% compared with 2020 and met only 8% of the final heating need in buildings and industry globally.

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