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The role of HVAC/R in the net zero emissions target

Did you know that there is one country that is currently carbon negative? It is Bhutan, located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, with a population of less than a million people.

By Miriam Solana Ciprés | Carel Blog

Unfortunately, not many countries can achieve carbon negative emissions at their current development status, and indeed it is expected that Bhutan will become carbon neutral as it develops. However, in order to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement for limiting global warming to well below 2°C, it is essential for the world to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

The good news is that 131 countries have already adopted, have announced or are considering net zero emissions targets. These countries, with objectives to be achieved between 2030 and 2060, account for around 70% of global emissions1.

Among the new additions for this year are Laos and Ukraine, which have outlined their plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and 2060 respectively, joining those that had done so in the two previous years. Additionally, Canada, Ireland, Germany and Japan have enshrined their 2050 targets in law (2045 in the case of Germany).

Other news is that the European Commission has adopted a package of proposals to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. These measures are crucial to Europe becoming climate-neutral by 2050 in compliance with the European Green Deal, presented in December 2019.

China’s plan of becoming carbon neutral by 2060 was announced in 2020 but deserves a mention as it is currently the biggest emitter of CO2 on the planet.

Carbon neutrality means balancing carbon that is emitted and carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere in carbon sinks, in other words, any system that absorbs more carbon than it emits. Natural sinks have been estimated to remove between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 per year, whereas global CO2 emissions have been much higher over recent years. For instance, annual global CO2 emissions reached 38.0 Gt in 20192. Considering that no artificial carbon sinks are able to remove carbon from the atmosphere today, reducing carbon emissions becomes essential.

The carbon neutral world

The path to carbon neutrality brings many changes that regard the way we obtain, preserve and use energy.

Clearly, energy should predominantly be obtained from renewable sources. Indeed, it has been estimated that two-thirds of total energy supply will come from wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydro energy if the world becomes carbon neutral by 20501.

In that scenario, the remaining fossil fuels will be used in goods where the carbon is embodied in the product, such as plastics, in facilities fitted with CCUS (Carbon capture, utilisation and storage), and in sectors where low‐emission technology options are scarce. Moreover, electricity will most likely account for almost 50% of total energy consumption, with 90% coming from renewable sources1.

The transition to renewable energy will require major increases in all areas of flexibility: batteries, demand response and low‐carbon flexible power plants, supported by smarter and more digital electricity networks. In turn, this requires the use of critical minerals such as copper, cobalt, manganese and various rare earth metals.

Optimising the use of energy through increasingly efficient systems is another pillar of the carbon neutrality target. To this effect, digitalisation and the development of new technologies will play a very important role. It is interesting to note that most of the global reductions in CO2 emissions through 2030 will probably come from technologies that are readily available today, whereas almost half of the reductions by 2050 will come from technologies that are currently in the demonstration or prototype phase.

What is the role of the HVAC/R sector?

The total number of refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pump systems in operation worldwide is around 5 billion, accounting for 7.8 % of global greenhouse gas emissions3. Without policy intervention, these emissions are projected to rise by 90% above 2017 levels by the year 2050, driven by heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and an expanding middle class.2

The emissions coming from HVAC/R systems are categorised as direct and indirect. Direct emissions, accounting for 63% of total emissions, are caused by the use of refrigerants, especially fluorinated ones. Indirect emissions, accounting for 37%, come from the production of electricity needed for operation of the systems4.

There are different regulations around the globe that aim to increase the efficiency of HVAC/R systems, from the European Union to the USA, Mexico, China, Australia and New Zealand. In all of these regions, there are also energy labels that let users know the efficiency level of the equipment.

As regards the transition of refrigerants, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol that entered into force in 2019 set targets for the reduction in high GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigerants in the market for each group of countries. Without this agreement, global temperatures would increase from 0.3 to 0.5 °C, a substantial difference in the context of the Paris Agreement. The use of low GWP refrigerants, especially naturals, is being extended even to countries where the reductions required by the Kigali Amendment have not yet come into force. However, the road is still long when we consider that a refrigerant needs to have a GWP of less than five to be net-zero compatible.5

The development of HVAC/R technologies favours the reduction of both direct and indirect CO2 emissions, being essential to improve systems that are compatible with low GWP refrigerants and ensuring both safety and efficiency. On one hand, smart controls and the IoT (Internet of Things) are playing a large part in ensuring HVAC/R systems operate as efficiently as possible.

On the other, variable-speed technologies, together with electronic expansion valves and efficient control systems, ensure that only the amount of heating or cooling that is needed is being delivered. In all cases, good service and maintenance practices are essential to guarantee not only the efficient use of HVAC/R products, but also safety.

The use of renewable sources, thermal storage and district heating and cooling, as well as the adoption of measures to reduce the need for cooling and heating, will certainly help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the HVAC/R sector.

Last but not least, we cannot forget the role of heat pumps as alternatives to gas boilers on the path to carbon neutrality. Indeed, in order to achieve net-zero emissions in the world by 2050, high efficiency electric heat pumps should become the primary technology of choice for space heating, from a monthly increasing of 1.5 million today to around 5 million by 2030 and 10 million by 20501.

In conclusion, we have a huge responsibility in the global objective of achieving carbon neutrality in the first half of the 21st century. However, we cannot do it alone, cooperation with other sectors in all countries is essential. This is a worldwide team effort where the future of the planet is at stake.


  1. “Net zero by 2050”, International Energy Agency (IEA), 2021
  4. “Activity report 2020 according to the sustainable development goals”, International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), 2021
  5. “Pathway to Net Zero Cooling Product List, International Energy Agency (IEA), 2021