On March 8, 2019, India became the first major global economy to issue a national cooling action plan. The landmark India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) took courage and foresight on the part of the ministries involved to proactively plan for a problem that is still in the future. The ICAP reflects and incorporates global best practices to enable cooling access in India while reducing cooling demand and increasing efficiency. As laudable and timely as the development of the ICAP is, the real work begins now — solving the dilemma of how to meet the country’s growing social need for cooling without major economic and environmental consequences. This is where a robust innovation ecosystem will play a critical role. Innovation is spawned by need and courage — and in India we have both.
Why a reader may wonder, is cooling such a high national priority? Cooling is vitally important to many aspects of modern life and is closely linked with health, wellbeing, productivity and economic growth of all citizens, particularly in hot climates. India, as a growing economy characterized by rising per capita income, rapid urbanization and a largely tropical climate, is at the cusp of a sharp rise in demand for cooling. While this growth in cooling is in alignment with India’s developmental needs, there is rising concern about the energy and environmental impacts of cooling, given that today’s cooling practices are very energy intensive and rely predominantly on fossil fuels. Studies project that India’s cooling-related electricity demand in the building sector alone may see a 15-fold jump between 2016 and 2050 in a business-as-usual scenario. Incredibly, the increase is roughly equivalent to the country’s total annual electricity consumption today. This poses severe adverse impacts: peak load challenges, significant additional power generation capacity, capital investments, and an enormous greenhouse gas footprint.
Within this context, the ICAP is an important call to action to proactively manage India’s escalating cooling needs while securing environmental and socio-economic benefits for society. The development of ICAP has been an inter-ministerial and multi-stakeholder process in order to synergize actions for addressing the cooling requirements and overlaps across all sectors: building sector cooling, cold-chain and refrigeration, transport air conditioning, the service sector, indigenous production of refrigerants, and R&D in the cooling domain. The ICAP’s holistic approach — encompassing strategies for reduction in cooling loads, serving cooling loads efficiently through energy-efficient and not-in-kind technologies, and optimizing cooling loads through demand-side strategies — is one that other nations could study and follow. The Department of Science and Technology — which was involved in the ICAP development process —applauds the exemplary cross-functional collaboration it took and endorses and supports the intent of this important policy document.
The ICAP establishes high-level goals to achieve reduction of cooling demand across sectors by 20–25 percent, refrigerant demand by 25–30 percent and cooling energy requirements by 25–40 percent, all by 2037–2038. These goals are derived on the basis of strategies and actions that we know today; and while these are meaningful and necessary targets, given the urgency of what is at stake, perhaps more should, and could, be done if India were to channel its institutional capacities and the growing momentum around cooling into a cutting-edge innovation ecosystem. This is perhaps reflected in the ICAP’s overarching goal — to recognize cooling as a thrust area of research under the national science and technology programme ‘to support the development of technological solutions and encourage innovation challenges’.
The government’s recognition of the important role of technology innovation, backed by robust research and development, is reflected in India being a signatory of Mission Innovation (MI) — a global initiative of 23 member countries and the European Union, launched in 2015, with the aim to mobilise both public and private sector efforts to accelerate the pace of innovation. India has increasingly taken a leadership role in MI activities. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind’s words, at a recent address, underscore the government’s thrust on innovation, emphasizing that we must “…draw upon the power of innovation to find solutions to India’s concerns in diverse domains…” These words are very applicable to India’s cooling challenge, where innovation can, I believe, play an important role in not only achieving but also exceeding the targets of the ICAP.
A case in point is the government-supported Global Cooling Prize (GCP) — a global innovation challenge inaugurated in New Delhi, on November 12, 2018, and an important MI initiative under India’s leadership, aligned with one of the key MI objectives of making low-carbon heating and cooling affordable for everyone. The GCP aims to catalyse disruptive innovation in the cooling industry and achieve a cooling solution that uses significantly less energy than today’s typical room air conditioner and has five-times less climate impact.
This breakthrough solution could have significant ramifications for India — which is projected to hold over 20 percent of the global installed stock of room air conditioners by 2050 — reducing India’s estimated peak load by around 400 GW in 2050 while resulting in approximately 70 percent reduction in electricity consumption from room air conditioners as compared to business as usual. Successful scaling of the innovative solution could far exceed the ICAP’s targets for reductions in energy requirements for cooling and in refrigerant demand. Additional co-benefits would include significant monetary savings to the nation in the form of avoided capacity and grid infrastructure investments, freeing up this capital for other developmental and national priorities. Being the epicentre of this first-of-its-kind innovation challenge offers yet another powerful avenue for India to continue to showcase its innovation leadership.
The ICAP’s inherent emphasis on innovation is also evident in an entire chapter being dedicated to the importance of a robust R&D innovation ecosystem in India. To foster innovation, the ICAP calls for further development of scientific manpower in the area, support for R&D activities on various facets of cooling, and the need for industry preparedness to assimilate new technologies. To that, I would add that the same inter-ministerial collaboration that was evident in the development of the ICAP will need to be carried forward in establishing an innovation and implementation framework for the ICAP. Public-private partnerships, international collaboration and integrated cross-sectoral problem solving will have to be the underpinnings for an effective innovation ecosystem to address cooling.
Given that the majority of India’s cooling demand is nascent, we have a unique opportunity to explore and leapfrog to innovations that support the government’s priority to enable access to efficient and affordable cooling for all. For this, the combination of the need-based innovation drives (such as the GCP) and the forward-looking bold policy initiatives (such as the ICAP) is a potent one to propel India forward as an innovation leader. This would also give a powerful impetus to young professionals who seek to make a difference by showing possibilities to deploy their technical skills to solve pressing and critical challenges — a priority area for the government to reap the rewards of the demographic dividend.
An innovation culture will go a long way in achieving and exceeding the objectives of the ICAP while improving the quality of life and productivity of the people of India, thus accelerating the country’s growth trajectory. I am optimistic that we will look back upon March 8, 2019, with pride as one of the pivotal dates that launched India on an innovation pathway toward a sustainable, equitable and low-energy cooling future. CNBC TV18