Comment: Giles Bristow of Ashden urges impact investors to back innovators in the Global South who have developed affordable and effective alternatives to air conditioning
Extreme temperatures are roaring up the news agenda. Stories have covered everything from the “heat dome” bringing chaos to North America, to sweltering temperatures in the Middle East. The facts and figures can be dizzying – like the 52C recorded in Kuwait, or the news that Canada’s record high rose by 4C in a single day.
Behind these mind-boggling numbers are the human stories of extreme heat. Those most at risk include people living in crowded homes, where building materials and design push temperatures even higher. One 2019 study found that in Delhi and Dhaka a brick-and-tin slum house could be up to 8C warmer at night than the officially recorded outdoor temperature.
People’s health suffers, work and study can become impossible. Women – who are more likely than men to spend time indoors – are in greatest danger.
Women like Sapna Raikwar from Bhopal in India, who saw earnings from her food preparation business plummet when her home became too hot to work in. Or her neighbour, Vamila Prajapati, whose family have suffered headaches and vomiting because of the heat – and whose children struggled to study ahead of crucial exams.
Global energy use linked to air conditioning systems is set to triple by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency
Proven, sustainable solutions to help women such as Sapna and Vamila do exist. And these solutions can flourish, if investors and businesses get behind them. About two billion people currently lack access to cooling. By prioritising action on extreme heat, we can raise incomes, boost health and strengthen community resilience around the world.
As temperatures climb, demand for air conditioning is soaring. Global energy use linked to A/C systems is set to triple by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. But conventional air conditioning is too expensive for those in greatest danger – and through its use of electricity and polluting gases, is actually a further driver of global heating. So, what are the alternatives?
New products are one way forward. They include GeoAirCon, an exciting innovation from Pakistan. The system sees water pipes run hundreds of feet below the earth, often through existing bore holes. Water in the pipes is chilled by cool underground temperatures, then pumped back to the surface and used to generate cold air in people’s homes. The system uses 70% less energy than conventional air conditioning and can cool rooms to 28C when it is 40C outside.
GeoAirCon is a new technology but other answers to extreme indoor heat are well established. Most are based on the principle of passive design: non-mechanised solutions that make use of ventilation, shading and material choices to cool without consuming any energy at all. This low-cost, sustainable approach should be our focus when it comes to widening access to cooling.
Examples include painting roofs with solar reflective paint, making them out of bamboo or recycled packaging material, or even covering them with vegetation. All these are offered by Mahila Housing Trust, an NGO working with women in low-income communities in India and beyond.
Mahila Housing Trust works hand-in-hand with women, supporting them to set up community groups that focus on tackling overheating and other local priorities. As well as sharing information about the roofing solutions above (and enabling the discounts and fair financing that make them affordable), the trust helps women fight for political change, such as ensuring cities have extreme heat policies that protect the most vulnerable.
We are feeling more comfortable on summer days. My children can study
The women benefiting include Vamila, who has now painted her roof with reflective paint. She says: “We are feeling more comfortable on summer days. My children can study." She has recommended the solution to her neighbours and sisters. Sapna, meanwhile, has grown a green roof over her home, nurturing climbing plants from old plastic boxes and oil cans to create shade. She offers seeds and cuttings to others in her community, to encourage them to try the solution themselves.
But technologies alone will not solve this challenge. As Mahila Housing Trust knows, progress is tightly bound to action on wider issues such as gender inequality, rights and poverty. For maximum social impact, businesses and investors interested in cooling should think holistically, and look at how solutions are breaking through social barriers to reach those in greatest danger. That’s true whether investors and businesses are backing startups, forming partnerships with NGOs, or making cooling an ESG priority.
Of course, this issue needs action from every corner of society, including government. In many parts of the world, leaders have launched ambitious housebuilding and development programmes to create millions of new homes for those living in slums or remote areas. But sustainability and climate resilience are not always top priorities in such projects, with residents sometimes not consulted about the type of housing that would fit their needs.
But this approach is not inevitable. ECOnsult, a sustainability partner in the Egyptian Government’s Hayat Karima (“decent life”) infrastructure programme, is encouraging the use of passive design in building projects, drawing on traditional techniques for lowering temperatures. The architectural consultancy has produced resources that encourage partners in the programme to listen to communities, and design around their needs and lives.
Upskilling tomorrow’s architects and urban planners is another important route to positive change. Indian consultancy cBalance is working with low-income communities in Pune and Bangalore to trial new housing solutions and approaches. This process brings those affected by heat stress face to face with architecture and planning students. The aim is to tackle “air conditioning as default” thinking among tomorrow’s professionals, and lay the foundations for a new generation of sustainable cities.
The private sector has a huge role in the development of public and affordable housing – both within supply chains and as a delivery partner. By understanding and advocating for sustainability within these projects, investors and businesses can ensure they are building a cooler future for low-income communities.
Heat stress is a growing threat, and people already denied power and wealth are at greatest risk. But with the right support, these communities can do so much to keep themselves safe. Private sector action can lower the temperature and create cooler homes for future generations.
Giles Bristow is Director of Programmes at Ashden. ECOnsult and cBalance are members of the Ashden Fair Cooling Fund, supported by K-CEP, which is widening access to cooling for those at greatest risk from extreme heat. GeoAirCon and Mahila Housing Trust are finalists in the 2021 Ashden Awards for Cooling in Informal Settlements.
India climate change air conditioning GeoAirCon solar reflective paint Mahila Housing Trust Ashden Awards heat stress