Future Tense

The World Needs to Work Together to Make Heat and Air Conditioning More Energy Efficient

A woman sits outside a tent with an air-conditioning unit.
This camp in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region for internally displaced persons of the Yazidi minority includes air-conditioned tents, a necessity in a place that gets vey hot. Zaid Al-Obeidi/Getty Images

This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.

The world has done it before. After Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and colleagues demonstrated that substances used in refrigeration and other widely used applications depleted the ozone layer, the nations of the world came together and signed the Montreal Protocol in 1987. Ronald Reagan called it “a model of cooperation” and went on to state: “It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects. The protocol is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”

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The Montreal Protocol is widely seen as the most successful global environmental agreement.
There are many reasons why it worked so well: It is legally binding and was signed by 197 nations as well as entities such as the European Union. And it tackles one well-defined, albeit complex, problem that had some clear technological solutions. After some initial resistance (did we really expect anything else?), industry got on board and unleashed an innovation dynamic that led to the virtual elimination of the original culprit—ozone-depleting substances. The process was guided by international working groups focusing on sectoral technological challenges. It turned out to be good for the environment and good for business.

The Biden administration should follow this playbook. It should form an international working group on technological and social innovations in the domain of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, following the successful model of the Montreal Process. Such a working group will pave the way for essential breakthroughs toward net zero greenhouse gas emissions—17.5 percent of global emissions come from buildings, the majority of them from the HVAC sector. Addressing HVAC needs in a carbon-neutral way has to be an essential part of any climate strategy. Moreover, it will contribute to job growth and prosperity, and improve inequalities and health outcomes.

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HVAC technologies are essential for improving health and well-being, especially in communities experiencing the consequences of a warming planet. The associated negative health outcomes due to a lack of HVAC amplify patterns of poverty and racial inequality and further disenfranchise affected communities. As we could observe during any of the rapidly increasing heat waves of recent years, vast numbers of poor and disenfranchised minority people suffer and even die due to a lack of efficient and affordable air conditioning. Access to HVAC technologies is a major part of improving health and productivity in these communities.

In the context of a warming planet, this sector represents a classical Catch-22 scenario. Due to a warming planet, the demand for HVAC grows, which in turn leads to more CO2 emissions, contributing to further warming of the planet. To break this positive feedback loop, we need technological innovation toward net zero HVAC. There are many opportunities for technological advances, including efficient heat pumps, geothermal solutions, and linking HVAC to photovoltaic systems and smart home technologies, to name just a few. The challenge is to scale these technologies and make them affordable across the planet and not just in affluent neighborhoods of rich countries. Given the number of households and businesses in need of HVAC—numbering several billions—this sector represents an enormous business opportunity.

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Dec. 12 marked the fifth anniversary of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Dozens of national leaders gathered online to prepare for the U.N. Climate Change Conference COP 26, to be hosted in Glasgow, Scotland, by the U.K. in November 2021. Had COP 26 not been postponed because of the pandemic, the U.S. would definitely have been out of the game, as the Trump administration has officially left the Paris Agreement. But while Joe Biden couldn’t participate in the December video conference in an official capacity, he is determined to reenter the U.N. climate process and could make an appearance in Glasgow.

Compared with the Montreal Protocol, the Paris Agreement faces some obvious challenges.
First, the problem is much more complex. Second, in order to get anything signed at all, it did not include legally binding commitments. And third, there is, as of yet, no agreement about what the most impactful technological solutions are. This is where a sector-based approach focusing on specific issues that can be solved by technological innovation has an essential role to play.

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It will be difficult for the U.S. to again become a leader in climate policy. The partisan divide of the country makes it difficult to accept what Gideon Rachman noted in the Financial Times, “The cost of participating in international negotiations may be accepting compromise outcomes that are unpopular in Washington.” Furthermore, the rest of the world knows that even if the U.S. is still the only superpower on the planet, it is not as powerful nor as credible as it used to be. And, perhaps even harder, the U.S. role in global climate policy must be squared with tangible reductions in poverty, inequality, exclusion, and insecurity that lie at the roots of America’s problems.

All these challenges make a sector-based approach focused on advancing innovation in HVAC an essential and very likely to succeed part of any future U.S. climate strategy. Noted legal scholar Charles Sabel and innovation expert David Victor have analyzed how the Montreal Protocol took advantage of flexible working groups involving organizations and businesses sharing a focus on specific technological sectors. These groups nurtured, reviewed, and assessed efforts to find relevant innovations. They initially started with a few relevant players and grew by attracting other organizations interested in the know-how and standards emerging in the working group. In the context of the Paris climate accord, such a working group focused on HVAC innovations can have fast and dramatic effects on emissions, social justice, and job growth. The Biden administration has the convening power to start an international HVAC working group, and it can then place it under the leadership of an U.N.-based sectoral committee. Working groups for other technologically relevant sectors (such as hydrogen technologies) may then follow suit.

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The U.S. is home to some of the leading firms and innovators in the HVAC sector, ranging from giants like Raytheon Technologies as well as smaller and sometimes more flexible firms like ClimateMaster. Other market leaders are based in Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia. This will make it easy for the Biden administration to convene an initial group. Of course, it should not be restricted to businesses but include governments, research institutions, professional associations, trade unions, and other civil society organizations.

The strength of the HVAC sector in the U.S. also means that the initiative proposed here offers an immediate opportunity to create high-quality jobs that help local communities to flourish. As in other sectors, innovation in HVAC will come with new needs and opportunities for vocational training. Addressing the climate and its related challenges is the ultimate wicked problem. Starting with solutions that are within reach is one way to start.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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