120 Countries Discuss Climate-Friendly AC & Fridge Standards

Energy and environment regulators from 120 of the world’s developing countries are gathering this week in Paris to tackle a growing climate threat—cooling in an increasingly warming world. They’ll be reviewing a suggested template for reducing the energy use of new air conditioners and refrigerators, as well as harmful emissions from the refrigerant gases the appliances use.
Split ACs in Luanda, Angola

Energy and environment regulators from 120 of the world’s developing countries are gathering this week in Paris to tackle a growing climate threat—cooling in an increasingly warming world. They’ll be reviewing a suggested template for reducing the energy use of new air conditioners and refrigerators, as well as harmful emissions from the refrigerant gases the appliances use.

NRDC will be on hand, joined by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UN Environment’s United for Efficiency (U4E) program, to present the new model regulations to policy makers.

While air conditioner (AC) ownership is just 8 percent in the hottest third of the world today, it is expected to grow dramatically in the coming decades. The International Energy Agency estimates the number of split air conditioners, a popular type of air conditioner (with two separate units—one inside and one outside—without air ducting) that is covered by the model regulations, will rise from about 850 million to over 3.7 billion in 2050. Refrigerators are set to grow from about 1.7 to roughly 3 billion units in that time. Unless measures are taken, the staggering growth in use of these appliances will strain energy infrastructure and contribute significantly to air pollution and climate change.

The model regulations establish minimum energy performance standards (MEPS), energy labels that help identify the most efficient models on the market, and requirements on refrigerants and foam-blowing agents used in the appliances. The regulations will help developing countries adopt ambitious, regionally harmonized standards, a triple win for governments, consumers, and industry. The model standards will help ensure that developing countries don’t become the dumping ground for the inefficient models that can no longer be sold in the European Union and other developed economies.

Cooling appliances, such as air conditioners and refrigerators, contribute to climate change both by the electricity they use and by emitting refrigerant gases, used to create the cooling effect. But officials responsible for regulating cooling appliances typically sit in two different ministries within their national governments—energy and environment, respectively—a separation that has slowed adoption of smart regulations to tackle both issues at once. Bringing policy makers together, dubbed “twinning” by the meeting’s organizers, has the potential to jumpstart the effort to make cooling more climate-friendly.

Cooling: A Growing Climate Threat

Without quick measures to make cooling equipment more energy efficient, air conditioning alone will contribute about 15 percent of the world’s electricity consumption in 2050. Absent substantially cleaner, decarbonized power sources, that electricity consumption could produce 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, greater than the current annual carbon dioxide emissions from Russia. The model regulations put developing countries on track to reduce their share of cooling related energy use and emissions by approximately half in 2050, but much more work remains to be done.

Refrigerants in air conditioners, called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), have grown at a pace that would put 2050 emissions at about 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, three-to-four times greater than today’s emissions. Refrigerants are emitted through accidental leakage and at the end of the product’s life if not properly disposed. Fortunately, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, agreed to in 2016, is set to phase down HFC use globally. To reach and exceed the agreement’s goals, fast action to replace HFCs is needed. Pound for pound, HFCs have hundreds to thousands of times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide and are thus often referred to as a super pollutant.

Refrigerators are a significantly smaller source of HFC emissions than air conditioners but have the potential to contribute several hundred million metric tons of CO2 per year from generating the power needed to run them. The model regulations put refrigerators on a similar path to cutting their energy use significantly by midcentury. 

Model Regulation Requirements

Countries are likely to begin implementing the new model regulations within a year or two. The regulations call for refrigerator energy use to meet or exceed the European Union’s (EU) A+ level, which is comparable to current requirements in the United States and India. Nearly all new refrigerators in the EU meet this performance level today.

Under the model regulations, air conditioners must meet energy efficiency levels based on whether they use fixed- or variable speed compressors. Fixed-speed air conditioners must meet a level of performance that exceeds the current minimum requirements in Brazil, China, India, and Mexico by a modest margin. Variable speed air conditioners must perform slightly better than the minimum energy efficiency requirements in the EU and the United States, or a level equivalent to roughly 3- or 4- out of 5 stars on the Indian scale for air conditioner rating.

The standards also put requirements on gases used as refrigerants and foam-blowing agents (used in the production of refrigerator insulation). The global warming potential of air conditioning refrigerants must be at or below 750 in split-style air conditioners and 150 or below in self-contained air conditioners (like window units), reflecting the best technologies with widespread availability on the market. Refrigerants and foam-blowing agents used in refrigerators must have global warming potential not exceeding 20. None may have any ozone depletion potential, consistent requirements in the United States, EU, and other developed countries today.

The model standards are designed to be plug-and-play; interested governments can adopt them quickly with little to no  changes. The regulations prescribe internationally recognized testing standards for whether a product is meeting the efficiency levels, adjusted for regional climatic norms, that will help simplify rating and testing for manufacturers across the world. They also address measures governments should take to assess conformity with the requirements, monitor the market for noncompliance, and act against makers of noncompliant products.

Regional Harmonization

Minimum energy performance standards on appliances are extremely effective policies. They reduce energy use—which saves consumers money on energy bills and reduces pollution from powerplants that harm health and cause climate change—and increase the reliability of the electric grid. Better still, much of the extra energy efficiency won by the proposed standards should be achievable at little-to-no additional cost to consumers in the medium term.

Even better than MEPS for individual nations are regionally or globally harmonized MEPS, like the model regulations proposed this week. Requirements that are the same in all jurisdictions in a region significantly lower the costs of the regulations by creating economies of scale for better products. This saves manufacturers money and time by limiting the number of products they make for different national requirements. Consumers pay less because the products cost less to produce. Harmonized MEPS also lower the barrier for governments to adopt regulations: shared requirements, test methods, labeling, and verification procedures simplify many of the challenges MEPS programs can present.

By offering a regionally harmonized platform for MEPS and refrigerant requirements, the model regulations proposed this week will help developing countries stay cool, save money, and help the environment.