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Air conditioning, the catch 22 of climate change

Close to the end of July, we are now officially in the dog days of summer. It is something that we crave all year, but when the temperature rises above an uncomfortable 35 degrees Celsius we turn on something that is probably just above your head right now, miraculously and artificially turning your room into a more pleasant environment.

As the global temperature soars, Europe recorded its second warmest June this year. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, across all the continent, temperatures averaged more than 5 degrees Celsius higher than usual and more than 1 degree Celsius compared to 2018 and 2019, the two previous warmest June. A natural consequence of rising global temperature is a big boom in the demand for air conditioning units and refrigerators.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the demand for residential space cooling is rising from 300 terawatts/hour (TWh) in 2000 to 4,000 TWh in 2050. More specifically, the global stock of air conditioners in buildings is expected to grow to 5,6 billion by 2050, up from today’s 1,6 billion, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). A number which translates into 10 new ACs sold every second for the next 30 years.

In Europe, space cooling represents less than 1 per cent of the final energy consumption in the residential sector. However, it was the fastest-growing household end-use, recording an average consumption growth rate of 6.3 per cent per year. In fact, several studies indicate that demand for cooling appliances is likely to increase exponentially in the upcoming years and changing climatic conditions play a big part in this.

So the warmer it gets, the more we use air conditioning. But why should we be concerned? The answer leads to a vicious circle, as cooling our homes, our offices and our shopping centres just further accelerate the original problem: global warming.

Cooling down is catching on

The International Energy Agency’s Executive Director called the growing electricity demand for air conditioning one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.

The IEA projects that growing use of air conditioners will be one of the top drivers of global electricity demand over the next three decades, requiring today’s combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan.

Air conditioner power consumption generally exceeds that of most appliances and rising demand for space cooling is putting enormous strain on electricity systems in many countries, especially during heatwaves. On extremely hot days, average cooling consumption can be responsible for 50 per cent or more of residential peak demand, as demonstrated last year in New York.

Globally, CO2 emissions from space cooling almost tripled to more than 1 gigatonnes (Gt) between 1990 and 2019. As the power sector is a major source of air pollution, local air pollutants from electricity used for space cooling are also on the rise. Apart from electricity, various applications, such as refrigerants, air-conditioning and heat pump equipment run on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), to be known as very potent greenhouse gases, with a global warming effect up to 23,000 times greater than carbon dioxide.

In a nutshell, although buying an air conditioner seems to be the most natural individual response to rising temperature, if we look at the bigger picture we realise that without any significant changes in the near future, their extensive use is not sustainable and it could have serious repercussions in the long-run.

Nevertheless, cooling is critical for human health, productivity, manufacturing, data centres and research. It seems like we need to change our approach and find solutions to mitigate the harmful effects of our cooling industry. But where should we start?

Better regulation

It actually already started. Recognising the importance of addressing cooling to tackle climate change, nearly 60 countries have proposed or already have minimum energy performance standards for air conditioners.

The European Union was one of the first movers to create a favourable regulatory environment by introducing energy labels and ecodesign requirements for minimum energy performance. This saved 11 TWh and nearly 5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, which is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,000 cars.

With a more practical example, an air conditioner manufactured in accordance with these standards and requirements will save 340 euros on energy bills during its lifetime.

Building better

Governments can also contribute to reducing the impact of rising space cooling demand by supporting proper building design, improving thermal insulation and building energy performance. The building sector has one of the largest energy-saving potentials and plays a crucial role in reaching the set targets for cutting back energy consumption.

In the EU, buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of total energy consumption. Nearly 80 per cent of the European houses were built before the ’90s, while 40 per cent are pre-’60s and a considerable amount being even older and classified as cultural patrimony.

In Central and Eastern Europe, a large part of the housing stock has been built during the Soviet era, applying uniform solutions and similar standards. In the region, there’s a huge potential for a deep renovation, to increase savings on energy bills and improve health and air quality. However, according to the Buildings Performance Institute Europe, only 3 per cent of the public funds that could be used to support energy-efficiency investments are dedicated to upgrading buildings in the region.

Look outside Europe

Europe is an important role model for best practices but there is little doubt that the biggest uptake of the cooling market will appear outside of the old continent. By 2050, around two-thirds of the world’s households could have an air conditioner and China, India and Indonesia will together account for half of the total number. It is a big concern as the average efficiency rating of ACs sold in these fastest-growing markets is typically very close to the available product minimum.

Addressing the trap of air conditions on these markets will have crucial importance on the future of our climate ambitions. In the absence of swift policy interventions, there is no doubt that global demand for ACs will continue to grow for decades to come and we risk to be locked into this vicious circle.

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