COPENHAGEN—Since the 1970s, refrigerators in the U.S. have swelled from 18 cubic feet to 22 cubic feet. But, at the same time, the energy consumption of such gargantuan coolers has dropped by 75 percent, down to roughly 40 watts, saving countless tons of coal from being burned. And a five-year global program that reached all the refrigerators in the world with similar efficiency improvements might save 1.1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over that span, a significant contribution to combating climate change.

And that's exactly what U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) Secretary Steven Chu unveiled here Monday at the United Nations' summit on climate change: the Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative (Climate REDI)—a $350-million investment by major economies, including $85 million from the U.S., to bring everything from efficient refrigerators to solar lanterns to the developing world.

"The energy savings from refrigerators is greater than all U.S. renewable energy generation—all the wind, solar thermal and solar photovoltaics—just the refrigerators," Chu said in a speech announcing the initiative, noting the refrigerators also cost less. "Energy efficiency is truly a case where you can have your cake and eat it too. [But] it was driven by standards; it didn't happen on its own."

In addition to coordinating global standards for efficient appliances, Climate REDI will also invest in further developing renewable energy sources—such as wind and solar power—in the developing world. The initiative will fund the deployment of "affordable home systems and LED lanterns to those without access to electricity," according to a program fact sheet.

"We want to help turn the lights on where people live but also in a way that helps solve climate change," Chu said, referring to the at least 1 billion people who lack access to electricity globally.

Jairam Ramesh, India's minister of the environment, welcomed the effort and called for his country to be one of the recipients. But he also noted that "Indian companies have been pioneers in low-cost pharmaceuticals now being widely used in Africa. I see no reason why Indian companies in the next five or six years with the help of American counterparts cannot emerge as world leaders in renewable energy technology."

The Climate REDI program is an example of the kind of technology transfer developing countries would like more of from the developed world as part of any Copenhagen agreement, along with a specific amount of funding for such measures.

Of course, the bulk of indoor air pollution is produced by cooking fires and there was no program announced here as of late Monday to address that issue. And the LED solar lanterns have a wide range of performance in terms of light actually emitted. "Quality control is not that good," Chu admitted, but the program will work to address that as well as reducing the cost of the lanterns.

The major economies are also working on their own projects, such as a carbon capture and storage partnership between the U.K., U.S. and Australia. The goal there is to "broaden the range of uses [of the sequestered CO2] so the cost of capturing CO2 is minimized," Australia's Department of Climate Change Secretary Martin Parkinson says.

And Chu spoke of some of the "game-changing" technologies the DoE, which he called the "world's largest [venture capital] firm for clean energy," hopes will come to fruition in coming years, such as a liquid-metal battery that could be both relatively inexpensive and store megawatts of electricity. "Science and technology has given us game-changers in the past," Chu noted, pointing particularly to the Green Revolution in agriculture led by Norman Borlaug that helped feed billions in the 1970s. "The prosperity of the U.S. is actually depending on how much we fund this research. We are serious about changing our direction."