Cooling the heat: can India lead the world in green cooling innovation
In recent months, India has broken several temperature records, recording its hottest February in 120 years. Heatwaves have devastating impacts on the health, economy, and environment of the nation, causing deaths, illnesses, crop failures, power outages, and water shortages. They also worsen air pollution, which is already a major public health crisis in India.
Heat stress is a serious threat to human health and well-being, especially for the poor and marginalized populations who lack access to cooling infrastructure, green spaces, and adequate housing. According to the World Bank, heat waves affected over 1 billion people in India and Pakistan in 2020, exposing the region’s acute vulnerabilities to rising temperatures and frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme heat events1. Moreover, heat stress can reduce the labor capacity and productivity of workers, especially in outdoor and manual occupations that are prevalent among the poor. By 2030, lost labor due to rising heat and humidity could risk up to 4.5% of India’s GDP – approximately USD 150-250 billion. Another study found that low-income households in rural and urban South Asia experience higher indoor temperatures than outdoor temperatures, due to poor housing quality and lack of ventilation. These findings suggest that heat stress can exacerbate poverty and inequality, both within and across countries, and undermine the efforts to achieve sustainable development for all.
The problem of heat is particularly acute in urban areas, where the urban heat island (UHI) effect makes cities much hotter than their surroundings. The UHI effect is caused by the replacement of natural vegetation with concrete and asphalt, and the emission of waste heat from vehicles, industries, and air conditioners. The UHI effect also creates thermal inequities within cities, as the poor and marginalized suffer more from the lack of cooling infrastructure, green spaces, and adequate housing.
The World Bank's recent policy brief titled "Urban Heat in South Asia: Integrating People and Place in Adapting to Rising Temperatures" offers a comprehensive analysis of the urban heat challenge in India and its neighboring countries. It provides a conceptual framework and three specific recommendations for enhancing urban heat resilience in the region. These include gathering more data and research on urban microclimates and heat-vulnerable populations, integrating social and spatial factors in planning and development processes, and embedding urban heat resilience in building codes, zoning, and land-use regulations.
India must urgently address its urban heat challenge not only as a climate challenge but also as a development challenge. It poses a threat to the country's economic growth, social progress, and environmental sustainability, as well as exposing deep inequalities and injustices in our cities. Immediate action is needed to make our cities cooler, greener, and more inclusive for all.
Sustainable cooling solutions in India will not only benefit the people and the planet, but also create a huge economic opportunity for the country. According to a recent report by the World Bank, India can generate a whopping $1.6 trillion of investment by 2040 by adopting green cooling technologies and practices1. These include improving energy efficiency of cooling appliances, enhancing building design and construction, expanding renewable energy sources, and phasing down high-GWP refrigerants. By implementing these measures, India can also reduce its annual greenhouse gas emissions by 213 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 20402, contributing significantly to the global climate goals. As a signatory of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol and the Paris Agreement, India has shown its commitment to addressing the challenge of cooling in a climate-friendly manner. The India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP), launched in 2019, is a visionary document that sets forth five ambitious goals and 100 concrete actions to achieve sustainable and equitable cooling for all. By pursuing these goals, India can not only protect its people from the deadly impacts of heat waves, but also unlock its economic potential and leadership in the global cooling market.
To achieve its cooling goals, India must invest in three major sectors: building construction, cold chains, and refrigerants. This requires adopting climate-responsive cooling techniques in affordable housing, district cooling systems in urban areas, pre-cooling and refrigerated transport in cold chains, and alternative refrigerants with lower global warming potential. These are proven technologies and best practices from around the world, and India has the potential to become a global leader and a hub for green cooling manufacturing and innovation. However, it will require concerted action from all stakeholders, including government, industry, civil society, and consumers.
The government must create an enabling policy and regulatory environment, provide incentives and financing mechanisms, promote awareness and capacity building, and monitor and evaluate progress. The industry must invest in research and development, adopt quality standards and labels, and scale up the production and distribution of energy-efficient cooling products and services. Civil society must advocate for sustainable cooling as a public good, mobilize consumer demand and behavior change, and ensure that the benefits of cooling reach the poor and vulnerable.
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