If U.S. Air Conditioning Levels Spread to the Rest of the World, What Happens to the Climate?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013
Air conditioning in Singapore (photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly)

Global demand for air conditioning (a/c) is expected to increase dramatically this century as citizens in large emerging nations like India and China acquire the means to make their lives cooler and more comfortable. But the energy required to meet this new demand could create more trouble for efforts to slow down global warming and the effects of climate change.


The United States has already demonstrated what an energy suck a/c units can be, what with 185 billion kilowatt hours of energy being consumed each year by 87% of American households, plus the thousands of businesses that use it to cool indoor environments.


But a/c is fast becoming a new consumer feature in some of the most populous and hottest areas of the world.


“As personal incomes rise in those countries, their use of air-conditioning will also likely go up, which in turn could lead to an unprecedented increase in energy demand,” Michael Sivak wrote for the American Scientist. “I have estimated that in metropolitan Mumbai [India] alone, the large population and hot climate combine to create a potential energy demand for cooling that is about a quarter of the current demand of the entire United States.”


More air conditioning worldwide means more demand for electricity, and to keep up with this demand, power suppliers would have to ramp up production. In doing so, more greenhouse gas emissions could be released—so much so that the increase could wipe out whatever progress is being made to curb the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


One scientific assessment by Morna Isaac and Detlef van Vuuren of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency found that the “increase in emissions from air conditioning will be faster than the decline in emissions from heating; as a result, the combined greenhouse impact of heating and cooling will begin rising soon after 2020 and then shoot up fast through the end of the century,” Stan Cox of The Land Institute wrote for the blog Environment360.


Cox also noted that most a/c systems today utilize compounds known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which “have a smaller climate-warming potential than do the ozone-depleting compounds they are replacing.”


Nevertheless, HFCs “still have hundreds to thousands of times the greenhouse potency of carbon dioxide,” Cox wrote. “Rapid growth in air conditioning threatens to swamp out the marginal climate benefits of replacing current refrigerants with HFCs.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Will AC Put a Chill on the Global Energy Supply? (by Michael Sivak, American Scientist)

Cooling a Warming Planet: A Global Air Conditioning Surge (by Stan Cox, Environment360)

As Prisoners Die of Heat Stroke, Texas Justice Dept. Buys Air Conditioning for Pigs (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Air-Conditioning for Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq Costs More than Entire NASA Budget (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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