The air conditioning paradox

“The world is now 1.1 degrees Celsius — 2 degrees Fahrenheit — warmer on average than it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. But baked into that seemingly small change in the average is a big increase in dangerous extreme temperatures. That’s made cooling, particularly air conditioning, vital for the survival of billions of people.”

“These searing temperatures are just the latest in a pattern of increasingly hot weather. A heat wave that would have been a once-in-a-decade event in the 1800s is now hotter and happens nearly three times as often. Heat waves that used to occur once every 50 years are now nearly five times as frequent and reach higher temperatures. Heat records are broken so often they barely register as news. In its latest review of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it is “virtually certain” that heat waves have become more frequent and intense across most land areas since the 1950s.
Extreme heat events are also occurring over a wider region of the globe, from the depths of the ocean to the icy reaches of the Arctic. Heat waves are now such devastating events with long-lasting wounds that some countries say they should be named like hurricanes.

But the most severe risks from high temperatures are in places like India and Pakistan, regions closer to the equator that are already hot and have dense, growing populations. They also have less wealth, so fewer can afford cooling when thermometers reach triple digits.”

“The tactics for cooling can end up worsening the very problem they’re trying to solve if they draw on fossil fuels, or leak refrigerants that are potent heat-trapping gases. And the people who stand to experience the most extreme heat are often those least able to cool off.”

“There are many ways to curb the climate impacts of ACs. “The answer lies first and foremost in improving the efficiency of air conditioners, which can quickly slow down the growth in cooling-related electricity demand,” wrote Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, in a 2018 report. With greater energy efficiency, air conditioners do more with less. Also, homes and businesses need better insulation and sealing to prevent waste.

Another method is to manufacture more air conditioners that don’t use HFCs or other heat-trapping gases. Many countries, including the US, are phasing out HFCs. The US Senate will soon vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that commits to cutting HFCs 85 percent by 2050.

At the same time, there is going to be a massive market for sustainable cooling technologies. “There are billions of people that aspire to be wealthy, and as your income starts going up, you’re going to want to have access to cooling,” Kyte said.

The electricity that powers air conditioners needs to come from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, so dialing down coal, oil, and natural gas power on the grid and ramping up wind, solar, and nuclear energy is crucial.”