Cooling your home is heating the world Written by Joe Patchett

Air conditioners are growing into one of the world’s largest producers of global emissions, and with two out of three households expected to have an air conditioning unit by 2050, it may become a larger problem in your home than you think.

Purchasing and using an air conditioner is one of our most common responses to climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, people are using more air conditioning, which in turn is accelerating global warming, causing us to be stuck in an endless and vicious feedback loop. The air conditioner may be our most harmful device impeding the fight against climate change.

Currently, ACs account for 10 percent of the world's electricity demand, which may not come as a surprise to anyone who has received an electricity bill during a sweltering summer, but this number is only increasing as global demand for air conditioners is skyrocketing. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts ACs to be the largest user of electricity in buildings by 2050. This poses a real problem to our climate, because not only do ACs produce huge amounts of emissions independently, but the electricity used to power them more often than not comes from unsustainable fossil fuel sources.

Nowhere are the negative effects of air conditioning felt stronger than in the developing world. Rapid urbanisation and the growing middle class are installing increasingly affordable AC units at an exponential rate. In Southeast Asia, where foreign visitors already spend their vacation hopping from one refrigerated 7-Eleven to another, the region expects to need an additional 200 GW of electricity by 2040, the equivalent to Germany’s total electricity capacity, just to meet the demand from AC units.

Southeast Asia’s main source of energy comes from burning coal, meaning unless the electricity of the future comes from currently non-present renewable sources, we can expect energy emission levels in Southeast Asia to follow this same upward trend.

Demand for ACs is also increasing in some of the world's lowest users of air conditioning, like the UK and Europe, who have traditionally been opposed to their use in everyday society. The heat waves seen across Europe in 2018 led to 8.4 million AC units sold that year, 11 percent more than in 2017.

These extreme heat waves are only becoming more common around the world. The five warmest summers in Europe have all occurred since 2002, with over 35,000 people dying in the 2003 European heat wave alone. Soon the headline ‘heat death’ will become as repetitive as the annual flu season.

And yes, ‘heat death’ is as frightening as it sounds, “(Heat death) is among the cruellest punishments to a human body, just as painful and disorienting as hypothermia.” David Wallace-Wells describes in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, “The skin often reddens; internal organs begin to fail. Eventually you stop sweating. The brain, too, stops working properly, and sometimes, after a period of agitation and combativeness, the episode is punctuated with a lethal heart attack.”

So how do we survive our warming planet without making it hotter in the process? One solution is to design and use better air conditioners. The current problems with air conditioning is they emit damaging hydrofluorocarbon greenhouse gases, which trap thousands of times more heat than CO2, plus they consume large amounts of energy in the process. The average air conditioner is about half as efficient as the most efficient AC units on the market, consuming more power to cool a small room, than running four fridges. Check out these tips for improving the efficiency of your air conditioner.

The IEA estimates that improving energy efficiency of ACs could provide almost 40 percent of the emissions reductions we need to stay within the well publicised 2-degree Celsius limit set by the Paris Agreement. While the recent study, Crowd oil not crude oil, proposes the possibility of adapting air conditioners to capture carbon dioxide from the air, not only disarming the AC bomb, but turning them into carbon neutralising devices.

For these new efficient air conditioners to be any use, the sources of energy they get their power from needs to change. We need less fossil fuel burning power plants and more renewable energy sources. Luckily renewable energy production is growing faster and becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. Since 2010, the cost of new solar has fallen by 82 percent, while Scotland now produces enough wind energy to power two Scotland’s. Consumers have a growing list of options when it comes to power companies who offer renewable energy. In the US, you can use this tool to find where your power comes from.

The obvious solution is for the world to use less cooling. By constructing buildings that are more efficient, we can naturally keep our homes and offices cooler, and rely on air conditioning as a last resort to escaping the heat. Last year the New York City council passed legislation requiring all buildings to reduce their overall emissions by 40% by 2030, and 80% by 2050.

Steps like this require major changes in our own behaviour and from governments, both of which we know, by looking through history, the world is incredibly adverse to. However, cutting down on using your air conditioners may be the single most influential decision you can make from the comfort of your not so comfortable home.

As Dan Hamza-Goodacre, Executive Director of the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program, and co-author of Freezing in the tropics: Asean’s air-con conundrum, said. “Businesses know the answer, governments need to encourage change and consumers need to wake up and make smart choices about the cooling technology they buy”