Sustainable, affordable cooling can save tens of thousands of lives each year
Energy demand for space cooling has increased more than twice as fast as the overall energy demand in buildings over the last decade. Higher temperatures caused by climate change, coupled with increasing incomes and growing populations, are driving rapid growth in residential air conditioning (AC) ownership. Yet, of the 3.5 billion people who live in hot climates, only about 15% owned AC in 2021, with even lower ownership levels in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Lack of access to indoor cooling puts much of the global population at high risk for heat stress, adversely affecting thermal comfort, labour productivity, and human health. Between 2002-2004 and 2019-2021, the average annual number of heat-related deaths among people aged 65 years or older increased by 61%, reaching an estimated 300 000 or more deaths. Nevertheless, access to effective cooling has saved tens of thousands of lives; over the same period, the average annual number of heat-related deaths averted by AC increased 3-fold, reaching an estimated 190 000 lives saved per year during 2019-2021. However, the rapid growth of AC is putting stress on the power grid, whilst exacerbating the adverse impact of space cooling on GHG emissions, local air pollution, power outages, urban heat island effects, energy poverty, and physiological acclimatisation. This analysis examines available technical and policy response measures that are a win-win: they can ensure that lower income households are not left behind, and that growth in space cooling does not cause harm to the climate and health.