It’s August, and we are officially in the dog days of summer. Large swaths of the country are broiling under triple digit temperatures, and high humidity levels are making it feel even hotter. Even sunset does not always bring relief, as temperatures in some areas stay stubbornly in the 80s overnight. In other words, it’s ghastly out there. Which is why I am extremely grateful for air conditioning, and I wish everyone in the world could benefit from having it.
That sentiment runs counter to some who believe that the benefits of air conditioning may not outweigh the harm it is causing the planet. Even the pope is not a fan of air conditioning, noting that, “People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity, but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption…A simple example is the increasing use and power of air conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever-greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behavior, which at times appears self-destructive.”
Demand for air conditioning is growing around the world, and according to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), this will negatively impact the climate in two ways: direct emissions from refrigerants and indirect emissions from electricity use. Refrigerants leak into the atmosphere throughout the lifespan of the air conditioner, accounting for about 20 to 30 percent of air conditioners’ climate impact, while the other 70 to 80 percent is due to electricity use from the grids. If nothing is done, by 2050 residential air conditioners globally could use more than all the electricity that the U.S. and Germany use today combined, says RMI.
That increased use of electricity to cool buildings could also result in as many as a thousand additional deaths annually in the Eastern U.S. alone due to elevated levels of air pollution, posits a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“Heat waves are increasing and increasing in intensity,” said Jonathan Patz, a senior author of the study and a UW–Madison professor of environmental studies and population health sciences. “We will have more cooling demand requiring more electricity. But if our nation continues to rely on coal-fired power plants for some of our electricity, each time we turn on the air conditioning we’ll be fouling the air, causing more sickness and even deaths.”
To solve these issues, RMI would like to see manufacturers, university labs, and start-ups develop air conditioning systems that are at least five times better for the climate. This would come about through the use of higher energy efficiency technologies and low-GWP refrigerants. The researchers at UW-Madison agree with a push for more energy-efficient technologies, but they would also like to see a move to more sustainable sources of energy such as wind and solar power.
These are noble goals, but they will take time and most likely lead to higher costs for air conditioning systems and the electricity to power them. I suggest a more modest approach that would allow people to enjoy (and afford) their air conditioners, while reducing the amount of electricity used to power them. First, make sure air conditioning systems aren’t leaking; and second, turn up the thermostat a few degrees, particularly in commercial buildings.
This may seem rather simplistic, but it actually makes a lot of sense. If a system is leaking, contractors should make sure their technicians are finding the source of the leak and repairing it, rather than just topping off the system with more refrigerant (this goes for refrigeration systems, too). For commercial building owners, retailers, etc., turn up the thermostat a few degrees, which will reduce the amount of electricity used and make everyone more comfortable. Employees and shoppers will be happier, as evidenced by studies that show workers are more productive when the thermostat is set between 72° and 77°F and that the optimal temperature for increased consumer purchasing is 78°F.
I am all for finding ways to make air conditioning systems more efficient, but not if it puts the cost of the equipment out of reach for the average consumer. That’s because in many areas of the world, air conditioning is a necessity, not a luxury. Consider an article from The Chicago Tribune that states, “Studies have indicated that mortality during American heat waves has dropped by 80 percent since 1960, with virtually every study concluding the decline in deaths is explained by the adoption of air conditioning.” Air conditioning literally saves lives, and it needs to stay affordable.