For Zerin Osho, innovative solar technology is critical to stay focused on climate change goals while meeting rising demand for energy-intense heating and cooling
As climate change raises the planet’s temperature and contributes to severe heat waves, Zerin Osho, F18, is leading efforts to solarize thermal demand to cool our homes and workplaces without slowing progress toward carbon-neutral goals. Osho’s passion for energy efficient cooling solutions brought her to the International Solar Alliance, which promotes solar technology, particularly in least developed countries and small island developing states. The role continues her affiliation with the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, as she was recently designated as ISA coordinator to the United Nations General Assembly. “What essentially drives me is global action that can happen fast,” she says. “Averting the worst impact of climate change is all about scale and speed, and that is what I’m trying to do with all the different people I work with.”
Born and raised in India, Osho earned a law degree that led to her first job, as a legislative research assistant in the parliament of India, and then to The Fletcher School to study global environmental policy. Her path to working on climate change began in an eighth-grade civics class, when she and a friend were asked to debate the motion: “The United Nations is a defunct organization.” “My friend and I talked a lot, so I think our teacher was just trying to find a way to shut us up!” says Osho, with a laugh.
The assignment led Osho, who had never heard of the United Nations, to an increased interest in the organization and its climate-related efforts. “The more I read about it, the more I believed that the UN was not defunct at all. It was the most important thing in the world,” she says. “Looking back, I think the universe destined me to do this kind of work. It gave me a purpose in life.”
The Cooling Conundrum
After Fletcher, Osho served as an advisor to Erik Solheim, then the executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). She assisted in the launch the UN Cool Coalition to address the fact that as the planet heats up, cooling will be one of the top drivers of global electricity demand over the next three decades. The coalition’s goals include championing climate-friendly and sustainable, energy efficient cooling, along with the faster adoption of the Montreal Protocol, which calls for phasing out products that contain Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), used in refrigeration and cooling, and many of which are powerful greenhouse gases; their impact on the atmosphere could be thousands of times greater than that of carbon dioxide per unit of mass. Solutions to replace the warming potential of HFCs are now emerging, says Osho, as state and non-state actors join the coalition. “They share an understanding that efficient cooling in the global south—encompassing regions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—is the need of the hour,” she says.
Solarizing to Meet Demand
In 2020, Osho was entrusted by the founding director general of International Solar Alliance to launch its 7th program on Solarization Heating and Cooling Solutions, which aims to significantly reduce carbon emissions by switching homes, businesses, and industries to solar-powered heating and cooling. Promising technology breakthroughs in this sector include solar-powered food cold chains for safer and longer preservation of food, which is particularly vital to Sub-Saharan Africa, where close to 50% is lost or wasted, she says. And the benefits are multi-fold: solar-powered cold storage not only reduces post-harvest food loss and increases farmers’ income, but it also takes on a leading cause of global warming by cutting significant methane gas emissions that are 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Food loss and waste produce more greenhouse gases each year than all of India, she says.
A Eureka Moment
Osho is excited by the potential for the initiative to succeed quickly in countries such as India, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, where funding can help people leapfrog from older technologies to more energy-efficient options. “We’re talking countries where there is no transmission line, for example, where people who are burning, not even coal, but oil to light up their homes,” she says. “So here our impact is maximum. Here we can say, ‘Don’t even go to coal or gas; we can help you go directly to solar,’ and they are poised to make that jump.”
She is also inspired to discover how promotion of cold storage solutions that keep vaccines refrigerated are also already preventing food loss. Cold hubs in Nigeria and Ecozen Solutions in India for example, are Montreal Protocol compliant, solar powered, and produce green jobs for women, while storing both COVID vaccines and the local harvest. “In one policy intervention, the solarization of cold stores, you can have multiple benefits,” she says. “It's brilliant.”
Speaking Truth to Power
Osho finds hope in this and other positive changes. The Cool Coalition’s focus on energy efficiency standards, for instance, combined with the Montreal Protocol and other international agreements to reduce the production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, together could reduce the increase in average global temperatures by up to 1 degree C, she says. Osho is now embarking on a new journey of trying to protect the Arctic sea ice from further loss and hopes that the future generations are able to live in a world free from anthropogenic climate disasters.
“There is nothing else in the world I would trade for this work,” she adds. “It makes me jump out of bed every morning and we have a fantastic track record of success. Maybe I am young compared to a lot of the other stalwarts in this sector, but I am not afraid to say what needs to be said because we are in the middle of a climate emergency. I speak the truth to whomever I meet. Maybe that makes me a troublemaker! But at least, so far, they are listening.”
Earth Advocates is a Tufts Now series featuring Tufts graduates and students working on climate change issues around the world. If you know others who are leaders in sustainability, let us know at email@example.com.