An Air Conditioned World

In cities with hotter climates, air conditioning units in every window are a sign of a rising middle class. But mounting temperatures have also made air conditioning in developing countries a necessity for urban survival. We wonder: Which of the following statements about the global rise of air conditioning are true?

A. India will soon see more air conditioners installed than any other country.
B. AC units add significant electricity demands.
C. Air conditioners can be made at least 25% more efficient.
D. Air conditioning coolants need to be replaced to slow global warming.

A. India will soon see more air conditioners installed than any other country … is true.

Worldwide, about 700 million new room air conditioning units will be installed between now and 2030, according to projections by the Berkeley Lab, a U.S. Department of Energy research institution based in Berkeley CA.

No country is expected to account for a bigger share of these new units than India. The country, home to the world’s second-largest population, has to contend with severe heat waves.

As recently as 2011, just 5% of India’s then-1.25 billion people had air conditioning – in no small part due to poor levels of electrification across India. A new push for installation is supposed to bring reliable power to hundreds of millions more Indians.

(For comparison, households in urban China on average owned 1.2 room air conditioning units per household, as of 2011.)

Air conditioner sales are growing by 10-15% annually in India. The same is true in Brazil and Indonesia – other very large emerging market nations with a major middle class.

When daily temperatures remain at a high enough level for long periods, people begin to die from heat exhaustion – particularly children or the elderly.

Urbanization in emerging countries such as India has compounded the problems of global warming. Cities and land development tend to create heat islands that are much warmer than surrounding open areas.

B. Air conditioning adds significant electricity demands … is true.

Air conditioning creates significant demands for electricity. In places like California, air conditioning already accounts for 30% of summer electricity usage. In India’s capital, air conditioning can account for 40-60% of summer electricity usage.

Air conditioning usage requires deep baseload electricity generation capacity and peak capacity options, so that the power grid does not collapse from an entire city of people switching on at once on a hot day.

In many developing parts of the world, sustaining reliable electricity is an ongoing challenge to begin with. Large sections of Africa have intermittent power at best, even in major cities. (This despite rising temperatures and spreading desertification, which puts even more pressure on people to use air conditioning.)

This also has a political dimension. Power grid failures during massive heat waves in the Middle East in the summer of 2015 triggered significant unrest across several nations. Lack of air conditioning as temperatures reached physically dangerous levels brought people to the streets around government buildings.

In developed nations, baseload power is often supplied more reliably. However, it often comes from the dirtiest forms of energy (particularly coal) – in terms of air pollution impact and carbon emission burden. Five percent of all U.S. electricity consumption is solely for air conditioning for homes and buildings.

C. Air conditioners can be made at least 25% more efficient … is true.

The energy efficiency of air conditioning technology could be improved by at least 25-30%. (Some Korean air conditioner models already available suggest efficiency improvements of even 50% are already within reach.)

This could ease power grid burdens and reduce energy-related pollution, lowering the indirect costs of air conditioning.

Technological changes in air conditioning, including improved efficiency, could have many times the mitigation impact for both power needs and carbon emissions than massive renewables projects in China or India, although those are also critical.

D. Air conditioning coolants need to be replaced to slow global warming … is true.

In a particularly troubling irony, air conditioning units are now accelerating global warming significantly – even beyond their carbon-intensive electricity demand.

The massive rise of HFC-based (hydrofluorocarbon refrigerant) air conditioning units in the developing world has worsened global warming. This is due to the heat-trapping potential of HFCs in the atmosphere.

Simply ending use of HFCs could forestall enough global temperature elevation to keep the world from going past a tipping point.

There is an effort under way to add HFCs – themselves a replacement for earlier, ozone-depleting coolants – to the Montreal Protocol. This 1987 compact phased out CFCs and then HCFCs. It is widely regarded as one of the most successful global environmental treaties.

Editor’s note: Data for this quiz are drawn from an October 2015 Berkeley Lab report with additional data via The Washington Post.

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