Ways to Save the Planet: Investing in Cooling

New Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte helps make life-saving cooling technologies sustainable in the face of climate change
Lay of sunlight hitting the sunroof of the house
"As the world grows dangerously warm, access to cooling is becoming the difference between life and death,” says incoming Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte. Illustration: Kasia Bogdanska
September 19, 2019

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With global temperatures rising and the clock ticking, Fletcher School experts the world over are developing new ways to save the planet. For a series on climate change solutions, we’ve talked with several Fletcher alumni about their efforts. Read about charging extra to drive in cities, making car charging free, saving swampssteering energy companies beyond oil and gas, and activating states in the fight against climate change. 

Here we focus on Rachel Kyte, F02who has worked to make life-saving cooling technologies clean, efficient, and affordable. 

Air conditioning and refrigeration might seem like luxuries we can no longer afford, since they are responsible for ten percent of global warming and their impact is growing rapidly. But Kyte argues that access to cooling technologies is essential in a world facing rising temperatures. 

Such technologies “guarantee safe cold-supply chains for fresh produce, safe storage of life-saving vaccines, and safe work and housing conditions,” she said, which is essential in middle-income and poor nations with large populations such as India, Brazil, and China. (Kytewho will become the next dean of The Fletcher School on October 1was speaking in her current role as CEO and special representative to the UN Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All.)  

An estimated 1.1 billion people, including 630 million living in urban slums, face significant risk from extreme heat every year and live without access to electricity for cooling, according to Chilling Prospectsa 2018 report by Sustainable Energy for All. Another 2.3 billion people can afford to purchase only the most inefficient models of air conditioning, which use greenhouse gases that increase climate change. 

Simply plugging in more air conditioners and refrigerators isn’t a sustainable solutionwe must look to innovative strategies. For starters, the heat load on buildings can be reduced by installing solar-powered fans and retrofitting roofs, transforming them into “cool roofs.” Simply covering dark roofs with a white surface coating that reflects heat instead of absorbing it can lower indoor temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius, Kyte said. That reduces cooling costs, energy use, and carbon emissions, and it can lower local ambient air temperatures when deployed on a large scale 

In additionbusinesses should create efficient cooling technologies that will be clean and sustainable—and work with governments and others to deliver that cooling as affordably as possible, she said. Financing can help support research and development, capital for small businesses, and assistance for low-income consumers. 

Indeed, governments can make a big difference in this arena. For example, after a devastating heat wave hit the city of Ahmedabad in India in 2010, officials launched cool-roof retrofitting and developed an early-warning system to direct citizens at risk of extreme heat to go to emergency cooling centers. Heat-related deaths stayed low in the city during a major 2015 heat wave, while thousands died elsewhere across India, Kyte said. Now other cities and states across India are developing similar action plans. 

Such efforts must be scaled up quickly, Kyte said. “As the world grows dangerously warm, access to cooling is becoming the difference between life and death.”