Africa needs to cool down – urgently

COMMENT

As the world’s warmest continent and home to six out of the 10 hottest places in the world, Africa needs cooling more than most.

We aren’t just talking about the relief of an air-conditioned home on a sizzling summer day or the convenience of a cold drink from the refrigerator. In many cases, cooling is a matter of life and death.

According to a July 2018 report, Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All, globally, 1.1-billion people don’t have cooling facilities and are considered at immediate risk. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Africa, where 470-million people in rural areas don’t have refrigeration to ensure food and medicines are safe,and 630-million people in crowded cities have little or no cooling to protect them against intensifying heatwaves.

African nations need to do more than just catch up, they must lead. On a warming planet, it won’t be enough to simply adopt existing cooling technologies. African businesses and policymakers must set an example for the world in adopting sustainable policies and energy-efficient cooling technologies.

In 2016, African nations showed exactly this kind of leadership in supporting the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol — a global agreement to regulate substances used in cooling and heating that warm the planet.

In the 1980s, scientists proved that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other substances used in refrigeration and air conditioners were damaging the ozone layer and letting dangerous ultraviolet radiation flood through. Under the 1987 Montreal Protocol, nations slashed the use of these substances. The ozone layer is now healing and is on pace to return to 1980 levels by mid-century, with many associated benefits — including up to two million cases of skin cancer avoided annually by 2030.

By protecting the ozone layer, we have also greatly reduced the damage that UV-B radiation causes to plant species and ecosystems.

Since many ozone-depleting substances also warm our planet, the Montreal Protocol removed an estimated 135-billion tonnes of carbon-equivalent emissions between 1990 and 2010.

The Kigali Amendment now takes these measures to the next level by also tackling the realities of climate change. It addresses the critical question: How do we keep cool on a warming planet?

The climate threat in cooling comes from hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which replaced CFCs. Although ozone-friendly, HFCs are powerful climate warming gases. Nations that ratify the Kigali Amendment are committing to cutting the production and consumption of HFCs by more than 80% over the next 30 years and replacing them with environmentally friendly alternatives.

Their actions can avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by the end of the century while continuing to protect the ozone layer. This will support the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to limit global warming this century to less than 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels, with a more ambitious 1.5°C as a target.

African nations have been leaders on the Kigali process from the start. Beyond providing the namesake for the amendment, Rwanda was an early champion of the process, and its African Union partner, Mali, was the first country to ratify the subsequent amendment. To date, the Kigali Amendment boasts 44 ratifying countries, 11 African nations among them, and will enter into force on January 1 2019.

Economically, the Kigali Amendment creates new opportunities for Africa when it comes to sustainable refrigeration and air conditioning. By building partnerships, the Kigali Amendment will assist African countries to develop the technical know-how needed to prioritise sectors and technologies that do not use HFCs. The UN Environment Programme’s Ozon Action is teaming up with the European Partnership for Energy and the Environment to develop pilot projects in Gabon, Mali and Senegal to get this process started.

HFCs aren’t the only problem, though. Cooling needs power. If this power comes from fossil-fuel sources, it contributes to climate change, which in turn increases global temperatures and the need for cooling. Energy efficiency can help to reduce warming as the industry adjusts its technology to replace HFCs. African countries spearheaded efforts to ensure the Kigali Amendment would promote energy efficiency.

The simple fact is that we need cooling systems. But we also need to make sure that the price we pay for growth in the sector is sustainable. September 16 marks World Ozone Day, when everyone is urged to “keep cool and carry on” by celebrating the work so far, continuing to protect the ozone layer and accelerating action to curb climate change.

With leadership from African nations, the Kigali Amendment can help ensure equitable access to cooling for everybody without warming our planet further. And this, fundamentally, means saving lives.

Tina Birmpili is executive secretary of the UN’s ozone secretariat

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