Climate Change & Climate Action


July 13, 2018

Not everything is cool with air conditioning

By Peter Freudenstein

When they first cross the Atlantic, Europeans are often perplexed by the omnipresent air conditioners in the United States. Yet when humidity and temperatures reach unbearable levels during the summer months, even hardened naysayers of air conditioners appreciate a cool workplace that allows working without sweating profusely. However, not everything is cool with air conditioning.

Air conditioning is a relevant, but often forgotten, energy topic—one that is likely to increase in importance in the coming years amid temperature changes, climate change concerns, increasing access to electricity and rising population, and competition for markets to sell clean energy technology.

Communities are currently facing problems related to climate change and increasing temperatures, and these issues will continue to drive air conditioning demands, especially in the world’s hotter regions. This, in turn, leads to enormous growth in electricity demand, with India, China, Indonesia, and the Middle East seeing the biggest absolute increases. In terms of pure volume, for example, India’s energy use from space cooling will swell from 90 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2016 to 1350 TWh in 2050 while China’s will double to 960 TWh, leading to serious climate change concerns.

There are certainly positives to keeping air conditioning on. Air conditioners come with various benefits, such as lower mortality rates due to lower rates of dehydration, fewer heat strokes, and improvements in air quality. Furthermore, air conditioning is associated with increased productivity, economic development, and, thus, a better quality of life overall. It allows people to work during the hottest periods of the year. It also keeps data centers cool and the internet running. It allows people to enjoy a cool drink after a hard day’s work, too.

However, not everyone gets to enjoy the benefits of air conditioning, as various parts of the world have yet to gain access to it. The gap between those with and those without, and the potential for global temperatures to rise along with population levels, suggest that air conditioning access and demand will grow substantially in the future. This will create additional pressure on power producers to satisfy the resulting increased dynamic electricity demand and more electricity derived from fossil fuels will drive emissions, requiring manufacturers to come up with technological solutions.

Today, around one billion people still do not have access to electricity, which is essential to air conditioning. However, this number is decreasing rapidly, with 100 million people gaining access to electricity since 2014. And more people with access to electricity means more people have access to air conditioning.

At the same time, the earth’s population continues to grow. In combination with continued economic development, a larger share of the global population will develop higher consumer needs, including air conditioning. Just as car sales increase with GDP growth, so will air conditioning usage. The International Energy Agency (IEA) finds that “air conditioning today is concentrated in small number of countries, but AC sales are rising rapidly in emerging economies.” 

However, the main crux of the matter is that most of the air conditioners in use are not energy-efficient enough, with the average energy efficiency of air conditioners sold today being “less than half of what is typically available” to consumers, and “one third of best available technology.“ All these drivers will result in higher global electricity demand, making it potentially problematic for energy security, and certainly more problematic to address climate change.

Take the United States as an example. Space cooling makes up the biggest share of electricity use in US homes at 18 percent, and, as of 2015, the United States was still using more energy for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. And since most air conditioning units are by electricity and 62.7 percent of electricity in the United States is produced from fossil fuel sources, air conditioning contributes about 361 million metric tons of CO2 per year to global emissions.

Extrapolating this to a world with higher temperatures and more air conditioning demand, it is clear that this could result in a vicious cycle of higher temperatures, which lead to more air conditioning and electricity demand, which increases CO2 emissions, which again leads to higher temperatures. The Guardian‘s John Henley put it best, saying “cooling makes the planet hotter.”

The debate about future energy consumption usually revolves around electric vehicles and the transportation sector, while air conditioning, a less appealing and eye-catching topic, unfortunately receives much less attention. International Energy Agency Executive Director Dr. Fatih Birol calls it “one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate” and his statement should serve as a urgent and much-needed wake-up call.

How then should we address this lack of awareness and, more worryingly, this lack of action? Who is responsible for making space cooling a top priority in the energy debate? These and other questions, including the business opportunities a growing air conditioning demand might present, will only become more relevant and pressing as we approach 2025, 2030, and 2050, and will be addressed in a subsequent post.

Peter Freudenstein is an intern at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center. You can follow him on Twitter @p_freudenstein

Image: Air conditioning units on a building in Brazil (photo by Rafael De Nadai on Unsplash).