What the 'Cold Economy' Means for a Warming World

July 22, 2015
How we meet the world’s demand to keep things cool has major implications for the entire planet.

The modern world is cold. From air conditioning to temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals production to data center cooling to the vast global “cold chain” of refrigerated food transportation and storage, the ability to create low temperatures at will has become a hallmark of advanced societies.

And the demand for cold is on the rise. Urbanization is dramatically transforming economies around the world, resulting in a booming middle class that wants the convenience and utility of refrigeration and air conditioning. Currently in the developing world, an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of food is lost before it can even make it to market. With an expanded cold chain, farmers can earn more money by transporting their crops in refrigerated trucks, and families will be able to buy better-preserved foods at grocery stores. Many stand to benefit from increased access to cooling systems.

But keeping things cold also places a heavy burden on the environment, most importantly because it’s energy intensive. Experts say that more attention needs to be paid to improving efficiency of cooling systems, especially in the cold chain for food — by far the most significant user of cooling, accounting for an estimated 15 percent of all electricity consumed worldwide. “The most important impact of refrigeration for the climate is energy consumption of the systems,” says Didier Coulomb, director of the International Institute of Refrigeration. From cold storage on farms to refrigerated shipping to cold displays in retail outlets to refrigerators in homes, it’s estimated that about 70 percent of the food in the U.S. travels through the cold chain. Countries such as China and India are expected to reach similar numbers in coming years, and most of these systems still depend largely on diesel fuel.