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‘District Cooling needs to become the new normal’

Erik Solheim, Head of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), speaks exclusively to Climate Control Middle East on the progress of global support for the Kigali Amendment, the uptake of District Energy and its viability for the region, how policy paves the way for innovation and the growing recognition of clean air as a basic human right. Excerpts from the interview with Hannah Jo Uy…

| | Apr 12, 2018 | 10:12 am
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Broadly speaking, are you satisfied with the compliance of signatories on the reduction of HFCs specified in the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, especially in light of many countries having set their own respective national targets? Where would you say there is more room for improvement?

The support for the Kigali Amendment has, so far, been very strong, with enough support for it to come into force in 2019. In the meantime, we’re encouraging all nations to ratify the accord, with the hope that we’ll see universal adoption. So far, 25 out of 197 countries have completed that ratification process.

Even though many Middle East nations will not be implementing a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) before 2028, we are still hoping they will also proceed with ratifications quickly. This is because the ratification process is only a part of the story.

The real change we need to see is in the private sector, in innovation and manufacturing. When industry is given a clear message from governments that change is coming, then it will innovate and adapt. That’s the real key to solving environmental issues.

Ratifications will also send a strong signal that there is firm demand for cost-effective, efficient and clean cooling technologies in parts of the Middle East with high-ambient temperatures. That will help spur the kind of innovation the region needs.

Could you comment on how countries can manage policies and regulation to drive sustainable practices without sacrificing profit or growth of local manufacturers in the air conditioning and refrigeration industry or placing a higher burden of cost on the end-users?
It’s important to see environmental regulations not as a barrier to innovation and profit, but rather as something that unleashes innovation and change. As long as all producers are subject to the same rules and can compete on a level playing field, then the end will be the same for the consumer – a better product at a good price. Consumers also need to take into account factors like energy efficiency that impact overall cost of ownership, especially in the context of a growing global population and increasing pressures on electrical grids.

What is the progress UNEP has seen with regard to the uptake of District Energy, globally? In which countries, regions and situations have District Energy systems/utilities thrived more than others, and what are the best practices that have underpinned the success? What aspects must be implemented to ensure the overall success of District Energy in a country to the satisfaction of everyone throughout the chain?
There are some great examples around – in Scandinavia, China, Myanmar and the United Arab Emirates, to name just a few. But I also think we’re at the start of the curve of huge change. The potential is huge, in terms of both energy efficiency and comfort. I’d like to see more innovation, and more integrated policies at the local and national levels. We need to put these technologies at the heart of urban planning, too.

Could you comment on District Energy’s potential as a sustainable cooling solution, especially in the Middle East, where air conditioning comprises the bulk of the energy consumed in a typical building, and on the proactive move by UAE and Saudi Arabia to increase its penetration?

The potential is enormous, because it’s a model that works. I see it much in the same way as car-sharing and bike-sharing, which are beginning to take off all around the world. The entire concept is far more efficient and has a lower cost. District Cooling really makes sense in the context of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and it should be a priority to expand deployment. It needs to become the new normal.

What, if any, do you foresee as the main bottleneck with regard to the penetration of District Energy? Could you comment on the work being done on thermal storage? How do you view its progress?
Policy and planning coordination are the main bottlenecks. It’s like many environmental challenges – good behaviour needs to be rewarded and poor behaviour discouraged. There are any number of incentives that can make this happen, but policymakers need to be confident that if they use policy to leverage change, then innovation will follow.

Since 2014, when UNEP shared an overview of actions taken by governments to promote better air quality, has the organisation seen further improvements in the initiatives being undertaken by governments around the world in this regard? What trends have emerged since this report, and what are the gaps you believe must be addressed by industry stakeholders?

The big change has been global awareness of this issue. Simply put, people will no longer accept that living in a city should mean being condemned to an early grave or a life of illness. There is a greater understanding of the science, the health risks and, above all, the solutions. We’ve seen a huge expansion in air quality monitoring networks, and we’ve been helping to make the technology cheaper and more accessible.

We’re seeing encouraging initiatives around the world: some cities are investing more in public transport, or setting deadlines for the end of diesel cars on the roads. Some governments have started to sound the death knell of the internal combustion engine, while in China the big coal power plants are being shut and giving way to solar farms. What is key here is that we are beginning to finally see clean air as a basic human right, and not as a partisan issue. When this change happens and policies change, then innovation will follow.

Do you see greater compliance among stakeholders in the construction industry in terms of making indoor air quality a priority in the design and operation of new developments and in the retrofitting of new buildings? Do you see greater collaboration and cooperation among the stakeholders to further drive this forward?
There is some incredible innovation taking place, particularly in the United Arab Emirates. In this area, what we need to see more of are successful demonstration projects and success stories. Change is happening, but it’s not happening in many parts of the world and not quickly enough on a global scale.

Do you feel that the uptake of renewable energy could make a case for more designs within the building envelope that put a premium on indoor air quality?
We’re seeing huge global uptake on renewable solutions, including housing and buildings functioning as micro-grids. We still need further innovation on localised energy storage solutions, but that is an area where innovation is taking place rapidly. We’re heading towards zero-emission buildings and truly integrated solutions in such a way that energy, air quality and efficiency are all being built into the planning phase. My concern here is that this is still looked upon as cutting edge, whereas it needs to become the new normal. The technologies need to trickle down into the wider industry much more quickly.

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