Global warming: air conditioners are bad for the climate

It’s a real vicious circle. The hotter it gets, the more air conditioners we use… and the more air conditioners we use, the hotter it gets. Because yes, air conditioners refresh us but they also contribute, paradoxically, to the climatic disturbance of the planet. These devices consume a lot of electricity. The latter is today mainly generated by gas or coal-fired power plants and these emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

A report published Tuesday, May 15, 2018 by the International Energy Agency, ensures that unless a radical change of trajectory is implemented, carbon dioxide emissions related to air conditioning should almost double between 2016 and 2050. By comparison it’s like adding Africa’s CO2 emissions, about one billion tonnes of CO2 a year, to the CO2 emissions of the rest of the planet. And in cities, the warming effect of air conditioners is all the more felt. Indeed, each device rejects in the street the heat it has produced to cool the interior of a room.

The vicious circle is reinforced by the continuous rise in the standard of living in the world. Starting with China, India and Indonesia, three countries that will contribute half of the global rise in electricity consumption for air conditioning.

These developing countries are bearing the brunt of climate change. In the coming decades, billions of new devices will be installed around the world. In China and India, these goods will soon become as valuable as a refrigerator. In India, currently only 4% of households are equipped with air conditioning. But everything suggests that demand will explode in the next ten years. In Brazil, Thailand or Indonesia, when a household’s income goes up, it’s often one of the first purchases. Rapid urbanization, particularly in India, is further accelerating the phenomenon. Because urban machinery, not just air conditioning, creates heat, a heat that is in turn absorbed by concrete.

There are currently about 1.6 billion air conditioners installed worldwide, about half of them in the United States and China. In China, the world’s largest market, 53 million air conditioners were sold in 2016. Nearly 135 million new units are sold each year, three times more than in 1990, according to the report of the International Energy Agency.

The United States already in the viewfinder

“The world is going to suffer a cold crisis,” says Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency. For him, the issue of air conditioners is “the blind spot” of the current energy debate. The solutions, detailed in the report, exist, such as developing solar energy so the peak production, during the day, is the peak consumption of air conditioners, or improving the energy insulation of buildings.

But the priority, according to the organization, is to tighten the standards on the electrical consumption of the devices. More energy efficient technologies exist, but consumers still largely favor energy-saving and cheaper appliances, particularly in the United States. In May 2017, a US study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, quantified the impact of overconsumption of air conditioners on emissions of pollutants across the Atlantic. And the result showed that air conditioning is responsible for a 3-4% increase in CO2 emissions per additional degrees Celsius, compared to seasonal norms.

Carl Frantz

Polyglot, humanitarian, Carl was born in Germany but raised in the USA. He writes mostly on tech, science and culture.