The air conditioning trap

Excerpt from The Guardian, Aug 29, 2019 by Stephen Buranyi

air conditioners are almost uniquely power-hungry appliances: a small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges, while a central unit cooling an average house uses more power than 15. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.” There are just over 1bn single-room air conditioning units in the world right now – about one for every seven people on earth. Numerous reports have projected that by 2050 there are likely to be more than 4.5bn, making them as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today. The US already uses as much electricity for air conditioning each year as the UK uses in total. The IEA projects that as the rest of the world reaches similar levels, air conditioning will use about 13% of all electricity worldwide, and produce 2bn tonnes of CO2 a year – about the same amount as India, the world’s third-largest emitter, produces today.

 For the first 50 years of its existence, air conditioning was mainly restricted to factories and a handful of public spaces.

One scheme to encourage engineers to build a more efficient air conditioner was launched last year by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a US-based energy policy thinktank, and endorsed by the UN environment programme and government of India. They are offering $3m to the winner of the inaugural Global Cooling prize. The aim is to design an air conditioner that is five times more efficient than the current standard model, but which costs no more than twice as much money to produce. They have received more than a hundred entries, from lone inventors to prominent universities, and even research teams from multibillion-dollar appliance giants.

But, as with other technological responses to climate change, it is far from certain that the arrival of a more efficient air conditioner will significantly reduce global emissions. According to the RMI, in order to keep total global emissions from new air conditioners from rising, their prize-winning efficient air conditioner would need to go on sale no later than 2022, and capture 80% of the market by 2030. In other words, the new product would have to almost totally replace its rivals in less than a decade. 

New air-conditioner technology would be welcome, but it is perhaps “the fourth, or maybe fifth thing on the list we should do” to reduce the emissions from air conditioning, says Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, a professor of climate change and energy policy at Central European University, and a lead author on the forthcoming IPCC report. Among the higher priorities that she mentions are planting trees, retrofitting old buildings with proper ventilation, and no longer building “concrete and glass cages that can’t withstand a heatwave”. She adds: “All of these things would be cheaper too, in the long run.”

But while these things are technically cheaper, they require changes in behaviour and major policy shifts – and the open secret of the climate crisis is that nobody really knows how to make these kind of changes on the systematic, global scale that the severity of the crisis demands.

The New York City council recently passed far-reaching legislation requiring all large buildings in the city to reduce their overall emissions by 40% by 2030, with a goal of 80% by 2050, backed with hefty fines for offenders. Costa Constantinides, the city council member spearheading the legislation, says it is “the largest carbon-emissions reduction ever mandated by any city, anywhere”. The Los Angeles mayor’s office is working on similar plans, to make all buildings net-zero carbon by 2050.

Other cities are taking even more direct action. In the mid-1980s, Geneva, which has a warmer climate than much of the US, the local government banned the installation of air conditioning except by special permission. This approach is relatively common across Switzerland and, as a result, air conditioning accounts for less than 2% of all electricity used. The Swiss don’t appear to miss air conditioning too much – its absence is rarely discussed, and they have largely learned to do without.

In countries where air conditioning is still relatively new, an immense opportunity exists to find alternatives before it becomes a way of life. The aim, in the words of Thomas, should be to avoid “the worst of the west”. Recently, the Indian government adopted recommendations by Thomas, Rawal and others into its countrywide national residential building code (“an immensely powerful document” says Rawal). It allows higher indoor temperatures based on Indian field studies – Indian levels of comfort – and notes the “growing prevalence” of buildings that use air conditioning as a technology of last resort.

Cutting down on air conditioning doesn’t mean leaving modernity behind, but it does require facing up to some of its consequences. “It’s not a matter of going back to the past. But before, people knew how to work with the climate,” says Ken Yeang. “Air conditioning became a way to control it, and it was no longer a concern. No one saw the consequences. People see them now.”