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As the World Prospers, More People Are Getting Air Conditioning — and That's Really Bad for the Climate

The rise in the amount of energy used to power air conditioners could offset any gains made in renewable energy production and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
April 29, 2015, 8:00pm
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VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.

Ahh, air conditioning.

The relief of modern cooling brings comfort during summer heat waves and made possible the modern metropolis of the American Sunbelt. It's being adopted increasingly by developing countries, most of which lie in the tropics and subtropics. And in a warming world, it'll be on more often.

But it takes juice to run the AC — and without improvements in energy efficiency or far greater use of carbon-free sources of energy, that'll put a chill on hopes to limit the worst effects of global climate change.

"People getting richer is a good thing," University of California, Berkeley economist Lucas Davis told VICE News. "People being able to buy more stuff and be more comfortable in their homes, this is good. It does, though, mean a large potential increase in carbon dioxide emissions."

Davis is the lead author on a new study of the impacts of global warming and increasing wealth on the adoption of air conditioning and the resulting rise in emissions.

Using Mexico as an example, Davis and co-author Paul Gertler found that country's carbon dioxide emissions could go up by anywhere from 3 to 30 million tons by 2100, depending on how severe the warming trend gets.

'Right now if we take all renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass — the total that's generated in this country doesn't even cover what we use for air conditioning buildings.'

Under the United Nations' worst-case warming scenario, Mexico — which has a widely varied climate and about 13 percent of households with air conditioning now — could see nearly 40 more days a year with average temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius). Growing incomes could drive the percentage of air-conditioned homes sharply higher, with a 15 percent increase in electric consumption as a result.

"There's a lot of Mexican households with income levels around which we observe people buying AC at high rates," Davis said. "In just a couple of decades you could go from 13 percent to 70 or even 80 percent."

And that pattern is likely to be repeated in other, more populous countries as they industrialize and grow richer. India, due to its larger population and hotter climate, has a potential demand 12 times the size of the United States, Davis and Gertler found. AC sales in China have nearly doubled in the last five years alone.

"I think the results immediately apply to countries like China and Brazil that are middle income," Davis told VICE News. "And not too long after that, I think you'll see that apply to low-income countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, that are right now considerably poorer on average than these middle-income countries."

That's a nightmare scenario for efforts to rein in the emissions that are driving climate change. Air conditioning alone "could wreck any attempt to convert to renewable energy," Stan Cox, author of a 2010 book on the subject, told VICE News.

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If India, Indonesia, and Brazil used as much energy for air conditioning per person as the United States, those countries would need to devote every watt of power they produce — as well as every watt generated by Mexico, Britain, and all of Africa to power the countries' air conditioners, Cox said. That's not something that's likely to happen, and it's certainly not going to happen with current renewable energy, he said.

"Right now if we take all renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass — the total that's generated in this country doesn't even cover what we use for air conditioning buildings," said Cox, a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. "Even in 2030, we won't have enough renewable energy to consume for air conditioning, let alone anything else. And the same would apply globally."

So both Cox and Davis say that gap will most likely be filled with fossil-fueled power plants — a step back from efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.

"The truth is, the vast majority of energy consumed worldwide is generated with fossil fuels, and that's not going to change overnight," Davis told VICE News.

There are some bright spots in that picture.

US power plant emissions have fallen to their lowest level in 20 years as natural gas muscles in on a sector long dominated by high-carbon coal. And the rate of growth in energy demand will slow as countries develop, Davis said. Countries could rein in emissions by putting a tax on carbon output and eliminate fuel subsidies that mask the true price of energy — a painful step politically, but one countries like Indonesia have taken, he said.

"There's a theme there. The common theme is price energy higher," he said.

And Cox said the developing world can experiment with buildings that rely on more natural cooling methods, such as better ventilation and evaporative cooling.

"They've already pioneered a lot of good ways to do that, so there's an opportunity there," he told VICE News. "In this country, we're still stuck with a lot of these buildings that are in a lot of cases literally uninhabitable without air conditioning."

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Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl

Image via Flickr