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We need to find out more sustainable way to cool cities

Though it’s estimated that global temperature would rise by more than 2 degree Celsius by 2100, warming may not be uniform all over the world and it may vary from region to region. Its impact will be felt more in cities than in other areas. The world’s cities are heating up at twice the global average rate due to rapid urbanization and the urban heat island effect. By 2100, many cities across the world could warm as much as 4 degrees Celsius if GHG emissions continue at high levels – this is more than double the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. Some of the Indian cities will be worst affected by ‘warming’ disease.

Hotter cities could be breeding ground for newer types of diseases and could prove to be catastrophic for public health. If the current trends in urbanization and increasing heat continue, it is expected that the urban population exposed to high temperatures – that is, average summertime highs above 35˚C – will increase 800 per cent to reach 1.6 billion by mid-century and the people living in tropical climate countries like India will be the first one to face the heat effect which is already visible in some of our cities. The challenge is compounded by the fact that the impacts of urban heat are not evenly distributed. Lower-income areas within a city are often hot spots due to a lack of green spaces, crowded settlements and to the co-location of industrial operations, and residents of these areas are also less likely to be able to afford or access cooling for thermal comfort. These communities are usually the most vulnerable to heat, disproportionately bearing the negative impacts of excess warming.

To tackle this problem, we need focused policy and market-based interventions and in the absence of this the market behaviour defaults to an increasing number of people relying on air conditioners to address rising heat. In India, though the present annual sales of air conditioners is around 5.5 million, analysts expect this number to go up substantially in the coming years and they give the example of China which was in similar situation a couple of decades ago. Presence of about 40 global leading brands also confirm the future potential demand for air conditioners in the country. However, most of the demand initially will be for entry-level air conditioner – typically the unit that is the most affordable, and likely the least efficient. This can be a quick and localized fix for those who can afford it, but it comes with severe consequences, where the emissions and waste heat from cooling perpetuate a vicious cycle where mechanical cooling is further warming our cities, necessitating even more cooling and further compounding the equity divide for those who are unable to afford access.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to transition to more sustainable and equitable ways to cool our cities and ensure access to cooling where needed, without further warming the urban environment. And this has to be done without much further delay.

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