Air conditioning, energy, and climate change

2012-08-25

in Economics, Politics, The environment

Here’s a statement liable to make a person think about ethics, international relations, climate change, and energy:

As Stan Cox points out in his book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World“, America uses more energy for air conditioning than Africa uses for everything.

While it certainly illustrates some of the injustice that now exists between countries, it also touches upon the ways in which our present choices can be an injustice toward future generations, as well as how climate change can beget more climate change. As people get richer and the world gets hotter, more energy is likely to be used for air conditioning. Since much of that energy will come from fossil fuels, that will in turn cause more climate change.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt August 26, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Many places in the US which currently have a significant population would be uninhabitable without air conditioning. It’s not so much a luxury as a necessity in these areas.

That being said, my belief is that there are simply too many humans. What we do about that is a very difficult question.

Milan August 27, 2012 at 12:11 am

I agree that population reduction through voluntary birth control has appealing characteristics. It could play an important role in reducing the peak atmospheric concentration of CO2, for instance.

Given how costly unwanted children are to both individuals and the state, a strong utilitarian case can probably be made for providing various modes of effective contraception to all citizens at taxpayer expense.

. October 1, 2018 at 2:27 pm

Environmentalists who call air-conditioning “a luxury we cannot afford” have half a point, however. In the next ten years, as many air-conditioners will be installed around the world as were put in between 1902 (when air-conditioning was invented) and 2005. Until energy can be produced without carbon emissions, these extra machines will warm the world. At the moment, therefore, air-conditioners create a vicious cycle. The more the Earth warms, the more people need them. But the more there are, the warmer the world will be.

. October 1, 2018 at 2:35 pm

At current growth rates, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises national governments, 1bn air-conditioners will be installed globally in the next ten years. That would increase the world’s stock—1.6bn in 2016—by two-thirds (see chart). If you include refrigerators and systems that cool food, vaccines and data, the stock could be 6bn units in a decade. The growth in cooling will save lives, improve education and create wealth in the world’s hottest countries. But it brings huge environmental risks, warming the planet even as it cools people.

In 1990 few Chinese households had air-conditioning. Twenty years later, the country had just under one unit per household. It now accounts for 35% of the world’s stock, compared with 23% for the United States. India and Indonesia are seeing rates of increase similar to China’s in the 1990s. The population of the 800km long southern coast of the Arabian Gulf increased from 500,000 in 1950 to 20m now, thanks to air-conditioned vertical palaces. At current rates, Saudi Arabia will be using more energy to run air-conditioners in 2030 than it now exports as oil.

Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, calls the insatiable energy demands of air-conditioning “one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate”. Slowly, that blind spot is being opened up. In 2017, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, a research centre, calculated the extra carbon emissions that could be saved if air-conditioners were better. If HFCs were phased out and all units were as efficient as the best ones, the world could be spared around 1,000 average-sized (500MW capacity) power stations by 2030. There would be many more air-conditioning units, but each would use less energy. In India, this would save three times as much in carbon emissions as the prime minister’s much-vaunted plan to install 100 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022. In China, it would save as much as eight Three Gorges dams (the largest dam in the world).

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