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Why Cold Needs to Go Off-Piste

21/01/2016 09:20 GMT | Updated 20/01/2017 10:12 GMT

As the world's leaders descend on the ski resort of Davos, they'll be prepared for snow. Sat in sub-zero Swiss climes, the planet's growing need for cooling is unlikely to be high on their agendas. But if we want to build a sustainable and resilient future, in the face of major international challenges, it should be.

A main aim of this global gathering is to assess the challenges facing both our planet and economy, including: providing food and water for growing populations; how to avoid or at least respond to energy shocks; and how to reach development goals without creating unacceptable environmental consequences.

I believe that cold sits at the nexus of these global issues.

Millions of tonnes of food, along with its nutritional and economic value, are wasted because much of the developing world doesn't have access to a joined-up cold chain. That wasted food also represents a squandering of the water, energy and natural resources consumed in its production.

Meanwhile, drugs and vaccines that we take for granted in the west are still not available to many rural communities in developing countries. Two million people die every year from preventable diseases because they could not access vaccines which need to be kept cold.

These challenges could all be addressed, at least in part, by making cooling more available to individuals and communities.

But what burden is this escalating demand for cold placing on our already scarce resources? Do we have to accept that, to improve people's living standards, we must accept consequent environmental degradation?

I believe that it is possible to address the need for cooling - to ensure access to food, medicine, data - and to do so without negative environmental impacts. Achieving this requires a paradigm shift in the way we consider energy. We must go off-piste.

People don't fundamentally need electricity, they need heat, and increasingly they need cold. It's time to stop thinking about energy as a commodity, and begin to consider it as a service that exists to provide businesses and individuals with the form they need. It's time we thought beyond just electrons.

Cooling demand is increasingly extremely quickly. To meet the demand for air conditioning that's predicted by the end of the century with a 'business as usual' approach would require 2.6 million wind turbines, up from only 260,000 in operation today. And ever-expanding access to the web is dependent on data centres, where 50% of energy is for cooling and 6000,000 new data centres are expected to be needed around the world.

Just as we have begun to provide combined heat and power systems, and geo-thermal heating - so we need to consider how to create, capture, transport and harness cold most efficiently. For example, the global LNG industry creates, but also wastes, vast quantities of cold. Tankers bring gas, cooled to -160C into port, at which point all that valuable cold is wasted, rather than being harnessed. It's madness that cold is being thrown away at an LNG terminal, while down the road another facility is burning diesel to cool its delivery vehicles or warehouses!

Equally perverse, we often we have too much nuclear or renewable energy being generated. We can look for advanced and therefore expensive storage solutions to capture that excess power. Or, we could seek to store, transport and harness it thermally. We could begin to think about cold at a system level.

If that happens, then I believe we can address the global need for cold. To help lessen many of the environmental risks being discussed this week at Davos - to sustainably move forward - we need cold to go off-piste.