Keeping India Cool

Keeping cool in India is not just a matter of comfort. It’s a matter of life and death.
Air conditioning demand is expected to boom in India during the next decade.
Credit: Bhaskar Deol

It’s official—2016 was the hottest year on record, and the third year in a row to break global heat records. In May, temperatures hit 123.8 degrees F (51 degrees C) in Phalodi, Rajasthan, and patients swarmed the local hospital complaining of fever and diarrhea. Across the north and west of the country, auto rickshaw drivers waited in vain for passengers in the blistering heat, and city officials struggled to keep water tanks full as people desperately tried to stay hydrated. In Delhi, where crayons melted into puddles on sidewalks, the surge in electric demand triggered power outages across the city, leaving residents to swelter even indoors.

Keeping cool in India is not just a matter of comfort. It’s a matter of life and death. In 2015, some 2,400 people died of heat related illness in India, according to the National Disaster Management Authority. As climate change is expected to make heat waves in India even more frequent and severe, the need for cooling is more important than ever. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that can keep 1.3 billion people—many who lack a reliable supply of electricity—cool, without adding to the burden of air pollution and ramping up the climate pollution that is making the heat worse. That’s why India is looking at a combination of strategies, including climate-friendly air conditioners, cool roofs and energy efficient buildings, to beat the heat.

More Efficient, Climate-Friendly Air Conditioners

Only about 6 percent of Indian households currently use air conditioners, but sales are increasing by 10 to 15 percent every year as income levels rise. This rapid expansion poses a couple of challenges. First, the energy required to run all those new air conditioners strains the electric grid, and adds to the burden of air pollution as well as heat-trapping climate pollution. On top of that, the refrigerants used in most air conditioners, HFCs, are potent greenhouse gases themselves. Last year in Kigali, more than 140 countries signed on to an international agreement to phase down the use of climate-harming HFCs. India, with its rapidly growing market for air conditioners, played a major role in shaping this agreement.

Now is when the rubber hits the road. With roughly 100 million new air conditioners expected to be installed in India over the next decade, it’s critical that this boom in the air conditioning market helps advance India’s climate and energy efficiency goals, instead of undermining these efforts.

I’ll be attending ACREX, the annual meeting and exhibition for the Indian air conditioner and refrigeration industry this month in New Delhi, where NRDC will be joining the U.N. Environment Program, and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in a workshop on how to speed up the transition to climate-friendly and energy efficient air conditioners.

Affordable Cool Roofs

India cannot rely on air conditioners alone to stay cool, especially not for the hundreds of millions who lack the resources to buy one. People in slums and low-income housing suffer most when a heat wave strikes, in part because their homes are built with heat-trapping materials such as tin roofs and PVC tarps. NRDC is setting up pilot projects in three Indian cities—Ahmedabad, where a heat wave caused more than 1,000 deaths in 2010, Nagpur and Hyderabad—to test out cool roof technologies and financing strategies that can successfully scale them up. In Ahmedabad, the simple solution of installing white tile on a black tar roof helped cool down Shardaban General Hospital, where mothers and newborns on the top floor neonatal ward were exposed to overheated conditions. Other low-tech, low-cost cool roof strategies could include a simple coat of white paint, or even covering a hot tin roof with a membrane from a discarded billboard. Economical, climate friendly solutions like these could help low-income communities stay cool.

Efficient Buildings

Experts predict that 70 percent of the buildings in India that will be standing in 2030 have yet to be built. Energy efficient building codes can help lock in decades of energy savings, ensuring that as India’s cities are built out and up, they don’t also send climate pollution, air pollution and energy demand through the roof.

The city of Hyderabad recently started enforcing its Energy Conservation Building Code, which NRDC and the Administrative Staff College of India helped develop. The code will ensure that commercial buildings—which currently use 30 percent of India’s electricity—use less energy, deploying strategies like cool roofs, shading, efficient lighting and HVAC systems. NRDC and our partners have helped train hundreds of architects, engineers and administrators on code compliance, and the city launched a novel online compliance system to help ensure that the code is implemented smoothly. Several Indian states are already using Hyderabad as a model for developing their own efficient building codes.

Cooling a hot and populous country is no simple task, but India is tackling it head on. By embracing a suite of affordable, energy-saving and climate-friendly solutions, India can keep cool with less warming. 

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