Is Air Conditioning Heating Up the Planet?

Air conditioning is a double-edged sword. As the temperatures across the world are rising, we need more air conditioners to keep ourselves cool and comfortable. In some places, it's become a necessity.

But the air conditioners themselves produce heat and release greenhouse gases, aggravating the problem of the climate crisis and global warming. Building an eco-friendly air conditioning infrastructure would require a multifaceted approach.

Rising global demand for air conditioning

According to a 2018 report, global sales of air conditioning (AC) units more than tripled between 1990 and 2016, and this demand will triple again by 2050.

Over two-thirds of the world could have an AC, and half of those units will likely be in China, Indonesia, and India.

The report also found out that the best AC technology in the world is more than twice as efficient as the average of what’s actually in use around the world and three times better than the most inefficient products on the market.

Consumers are discouraged from investing in a higher efficiency sustainable air conditioner due to factors like high cost. Nations across the world would need to provide mandates, incentives, or subsidies to facilitate this switch to eco-cooling.

Escalating AC demand and energy consumption

Even if consumers switch to sustainable air conditioners and reduce their household carbon footprint, the rising demand for them would cause a huge surge in global energy demand.

In 2018, cooling globally consumed about 2,000 terawatt-hours of energy. By 2050, this number could increase to 6,200 TWh. The difference of 4,200 TWh is roughly equivalent to the amount of energy supplied by the entire U.S. electrical grid in 2022.

Continuing to rely on fossil fuels for providing this additional energy will exacerbate the climate crisis, causing more heat waves and increasing demand for air conditioning, creating a spiral effect.

So apart from setting minimum efficiencies for new AC models, nations would have to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Shifting to alternative refrigerants for climate mitigation

Air conditioning systems use refrigerants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These are greenhouse gases and are released during leakages and end-of-life disposal of appliances. Around 37 billion tons of them were emitted in 2019, contributing to the problem of global warming.

A Project Drawdown analysis estimated that using alternative refrigerants like ammonia or captured carbon dioxide could reduce emissions by the equivalent of around 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the coming decades.

By setting minimum efficiencies for new AC models, accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and shifting to alternative refrigerants, we can build an eco-friendly air conditioning infrastructure.

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