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Urgent action needed for the energy transition in heating and cooling – report

The transition to cleaner, more sustainable heating, and cooling solutions can attract investment, create millions of new jobs and help to drive a durable economic recovery in the wake of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to a new joint study by leading energy organizations International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century (REN21).

The demand for heating and cooling accounts for around half of global final energy consumption, mostly for industrial processes, followed by residential and agricultural applications. Most of this energy now comes either from fossil fuels or inefficient, unsustainable uses of biomass (graphic courtesy IRENA).

The newly published joint report “Renewable Energy Policies in a Time of Transition: Heating and Cooling“, highlights the benefits, identifies investment barriers, as well as the policies to drive faster uptake of renewable heating and cooling worldwide. It also describes five possible transformation pathways, encompassing renewables-based electrification, renewable gases, sustainable biomass, and direct uses of solar thermal and geothermal heat.

Energy-efficient heating and cooling based on renewable sources has emerged as an urgent priority for countries striving to meet climate commitments under the Paris Agreement and to build resilient, sustainable economies. The transition to cleaner, more efficient, and sustainable heating and cooling solutions can attract investments, create millions of new jobs, and help to drive a durable economic recovery in the wake of the global COVID-19 crisis. It will make much-needed heating and cooling services available to everyone, including to remote islands and least-developed countries of Africa and Asia said IRENA Director-General, Francesco La Camera.

Half of global final energy consumption

Heating and cooling demand account for around half of global final energy consumption, mostly for industrial processes, followed by residential and agricultural applications. Most of this energy now comes either from fossil fuels or inefficient, unsustainable uses of biomass.

Modern renewable energy, which includes direct renewables such as sustainable bioenergy, geothermal, and solar thermal heat, as well as renewable electricity (e.g., via heat pumps) and renewable district heating and cooling, still supplies only a small share of final demand, mainly in the power sector. the report finds.

Heating and cooling, consequently, is a major source of local air pollution and accounts for over 40 percent of global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

At the same time, around 2.8 billion people currently rely on wood fuel, charcoal, animal dung, and other inefficient and polluting fuels for cooking.

Dried cow dung is a commonly used biomass fuel for cooking in India (photo courtesy Markku Björkman).

Demand for AC and cooling set to rise

The demand for heating and cooling is set to keep growing. Cooling demand has already tripled globally since 1990, and as climate change increases the number and severity of heatwaves, so does the urgency for supplying air conditioning and refrigeration to billions of people.

Policymakers have so far given limited attention to the heating and cooling transition. By the end of 2019, only 49 countries – mostly within the European Union (EU) – had national targets for renewable heating and cooling, in contrast with 166 having targets for renewable power generation.

To decarbonise the energy used for heating and cooling, aggressive and comprehensive policy packages that phase out the use of fossil fuels and prioritize renewable energy and efficiency are even more urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cut demand for renewables-based heating and cooling services, including in households and small businesses.

The health and economic crisis has also worsened conditions for energy access in many developing countries.

Transitioning to renewable sources will help to increase access to clean, affordable, and reliable heating and cooling services, even on remote islands and in some of the least-developed countries of Africa and Asia.

At the same time, renewable heating and cooling can create new jobs, stimulate local economies, and improve people’s livelihoods, while strengthening countries’ energy security and independence, the report notes.

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