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Opinion: Reducing emissions through innovation

By Iain Campbell, Senior Fellow at Rocky Mountain Institute and Tony Gleeson, M.AIRAH, CEO of AIRAH.

With the hottest summer on record just behind us, climate change is top of mind for many of us here in Australia. Since 1910, our country has warmed over 1°C on average, leading to more extreme heat events, including increased bushfires, bleaching coral reefs and rising sea levels.

More than 1.2 million hectares burned in bushfires this summer, with fires continuing into the autumn on what was already the driest inhabited continent. In 2016 between February and May, we lost 30 per cent of all coral in the Great Barrier Reef, and 2017 saw another mass bleaching. These were the first consecutive two years in recorded history to experience mass coral bleachings.

We increasingly recognise that reducing emissions through innovation and clean energy deployment may be the only way to achieve the reductions necessary to solve the climate crisis. Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne recently discovered a method to convert CO2 back into solid carbon, which could transform carbon capture and storage globally.

Our regional governments are stepping up their efforts to reduce emissions. States and territories representing 80 per cent of Australia’s emissions have committed to reach zero net emissions by 2050, including the cities of Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. And Tasmania is the first jurisdiction in Australia to already reach zero net emissions.

The Sustainable Melbourne Fund pioneered the Environmental Upgrade Agreement (EUA), a financial mechanism that enables building energy efficiency retrofits. EUAs have abated over 245,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas, are available in cities across Victoria and New South Wales, and are emulated as best practice around the world. Nationally, the NABERS building rating system has been a huge success, with 81 per cent of our country’s office space rated with NABERS, saving an estimated 826,578 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Despite these innovations and emission mitigation measures, the climate threat still looms ahead of us. One of the largest contributors to climate change is a mundane feature of our everyday life: residential air conditioning. Here in Australia, refrigeration and air conditioning consume 23.6 per cent of all electricity produced, which is more than the entire consumption of the residential sector.

Overseas, while only 7 per cent of Indians and 9 per cent of Indonesians own air conditioners – compared to 74 per cent of Australians – this is changing quickly.

As the climate warms, populations grow, incomes rise and the world becomes more urbanised, the demand for air conditioning is forecasted to accelerate rapidly. The number of room air conditioners globally is set to increase fourfold from 1.2 billion today to 4.5 billion by 2050. Based on analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), this alone has the potential to warm the planet by 0.5°C by 2100.

Access to cooling is increasingly no longer being viewed as a luxury, but a vital enabler of health and productivity. But running an air conditioner today is becoming less affordable. Residential electricity tariffs here in Australia are among the highest in the world, causing lower income households to ration their air conditioning use because of concerns over cost. And air conditioners place a huge burden on our electricity grid. Just three-quarters of our electricity network is used on most days; the final quarter is only used on hot days for a few hours to meet additional demand from air conditioners. This infrastructure is being paid for by consumers all across the country, regardless of whether they actually own an air conditioner or not. The Productivity Commission calculated that households that use air conditioners at peak hours receive an effective cross-subsidy of $350 per year from households that don’t.

It is possible to neutralise this climate impact from residential air conditioner growth while lessening the financial burden on consumers with radically more energy-efficient air conditioners in combination with less damaging refrigerants. An RMI report shows that, using combinations of existing technologies, it is possible to design a residential air conditioner that is five times better for the climate. The impact of this would be massive. If adopted at scale, this technology would mitigate more than 75 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2050 and 0.5°C of global warming by 2100, with the added benefits of saving governments money on electricity infrastructure and consumers money on their electricity bills.

RMI, Mission Innovation, and the Government of India recently launched the Global Cooling Prize, an international innovation competition to identify, award and scale a residential cooling solution that is five times better for the climate.

We in Australia are at the front line of climate change, and our innovators have demonstrated again and again a will and capability to step forward and take on the challenges that can help improve the lives of our citizens and those of the world. The Global Cooling Prize is calling for innovators from around the world to take up this challenge. Let’s ensure our innovators are a part of this global movement to develop a radically more climate-friendly air conditioner. This would help abate the effects of climate change in Australia while allowing access to cooling for the most vulnerable populations – cooling for all without warming the planet.

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