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Two Issues That May Derail Global Sustainability Efforts

— November 9, 2017

Most nations around the world are committed to reducing carbon emissions and energy consumption. This is evidenced by the near complete global membership of 197 parties in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), with 168 members currently having ratified their commitment to the Paris Agreement. However, two global issues may affect the long-term success of the Paris Agreement and other national or regional sustainability goals and targets.

A Vicious Cycle

The first is the increasing demand for residential air conditioners in areas that have previously had low usage rates overall. This is most noticeable and prevalent in the Asia Pacific region, where many countries are in tropical or subtropical climate zones. Developed countries around the world have higher historical demand and usage of air conditioners, but increasingly, developing countries in warmer climates are escalating their desire for these systems. Several factors contribute to this increase of use, including general warming of the climate, increased urbanization and the localized hotspots urbanization creates, and the availability of a wider variety of affordable air conditioners.

Today’s air conditioners are much more energy efficient than their predecessors, but they can still be the single largest energy consumer in a commercial or residential building. Additionally, the industry has largely eliminated, reduced, or restricted the use of ozone depleting chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, but many of the newer refrigerants can have thousands of times more global warming potential than CO2. It is easy to see how increased uptake of air conditioners in areas of lower historical use can derail the intent and goals of sustainability efforts such as the Paris Agreement.

Miss-Measured Returns

The second issue is the miscalculation by governing bodies and sustainability related organizations of the persistence of energy conservation measures (ECMs). For example, the European Union recently proposed a new Clean Energy for All Europeans package with a goal to extend its current sustainability targets to 2030 and beyond. One important feature not included in this legislation is the requirement of ECMs persisting from one period to the next. Essentially, this may give many participating countries an out. The Coalition for Energy Savings, a European organization that promotes energy efficiency, estimates that the energy savings from measures implemented before 2020 will be lost by about 18% by 2030, and about 70% by 2040. Additionally, measures taken to correct these losses can be counted as efficiencies gained during the new period—essentially double counting a single solution. No matter how stringent the goals, if persistence is not required and double counting of ECMs is not eliminated the ultimate goals will not be reached.

Countries around the world are doing an admirable job committing to global sustainability. But commitment alone is not going to provide results if the actuals aren’t measured accurately or don’t match the targets. A key takeaway is that efficiency and sustainability goals cannot be removed from real-world dynamics, such as existing or emerging market forces (e.g., demand for air conditioners in the Asia Pacific region) or the reality of energy efficiency project measurement lives. US utilities, for example, include degradation rates on energy efficiency projects included in their generation capacity credits. This is essential for the utility to meet its generation capacity requirements for large customer bases. Global sustainability goals and targets need to include this type of consistency and accountability in order to be effective in the long term.

 

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