The more we cool, the warmer we get.

The world is heating up, and rather ironically, our obsession with keeping things cold is contributing a great deal. With the increasing income and urbanisation of developing world countries, the demand for both refrigeration and cooling technologies is increasing rapidly. China alone purchased 50 million air conditioning units in 2010, and is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest consumer of electricity for such units by 2020. To put that into perspective, the U.S. currently consumes more energy for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined, and uses more energy for cooling than the entire continent of Africa uses for all purposes. That is A LOT of energy.

Right now, refrigerants (fluids that absorb and release heat efficiently at the right temperatures) are the key to cooling technologies, but they also cause a great deal of trouble when released in to the atmosphere. Previously used examples such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are being phased out due to the damaging effect that they had on the Earth’s Ozone layer, but the less aggressive substitutes are still powerful greenhouse gases. The most prominent of these new compounds are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which do have a smaller climate warming potential than the substances they’re replacing, but still have up to 4000 times the potency of CO2. This is on a pound-for-pound basis however, and the large quantities of CO2 still make it a much larger threat.

Now air conditioning technology has improved a great deal since it’s invention, with the energy requirements steadily decreasing over the years. In 1980 an individual unit used 1474 kWh/year and cost around $178 to run, according to figures by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Today, certain units only use 597 kWh/year and cost around $75 to run. But while the energy requirements have been decreasing, we are using significantly more air conditioning units. Couple this with the fact that air conditioning runs on electricity, which is almost entirely generated from the burning of coal, and we have a huge problem for the climate.

In contrast, a large amount of energy used for heating also comes from fossil fuels, but those with somewhat smaller carbon emissions than coal, such as oil and natural gas. This means that, on average, an air conditioning unit emits more greenhouse gases removing heat than a heater does supplying that same quantity of heat, and the climate impact of these units in the U.S. alone is currently almost half a billion tonnes of CO2 per year. This is already bad, but it could be made a lot worse if global consumption reaches the predicted 10 trillion kWh/year, equal to half the world’s entire electrical supply.

With such greenhouse emissions already having increased the Earth’s temperature by about 0.56oC, and scientists predicting that the trend will continue, it is safe to say that more energy will be used in cooling, and less in heating, as people attempt to find relief from the increasing temperatures. In fact, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency predicts that, in this warming world, the increased emissions from cooling technology will be faster than the decline in emissions from heating. There is hope that this could be prevented by use of renewables to meet energy demands, but this is unlikely. Even if electricity from sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal expanded to five times their current production, it would still be unable to cover the air conditioning demand for the U.S. alone.

But that is not to say that countries are not attempting to find low energy methods for cooling, as many are in progress on every continent. For example, there are “Passive Cooling” projects in China, India, Egypt and other countries that combine traditional technologies, such as wind towers and water evaporation, with new architectural designs that are ventilation friendly. Solar adsorption is also being experimented with, which uses the heat from the Sun to cool the indoor air… somehow. However, this is not currently affordable or adaptable to home use.

All of this would suggest that we should attempt to prevent the continued growth of air conditioning technology. But despite all of these problems, studies have shown that air conditioning does improve people’s lives. It not only helps sleep patterns, but makes workers more efficient and has prevented potential heat stroke deaths during hot summers. Given this information, is it fair to demand that developing countries go without air conditioning when so many people in the developed world use it freely? I don’t think so. Which means we have to hope that the world continues to find and develop new ways to adapt to increasingly warmer temperatures, and that we can act fast enough to prevent a world that is too warm for even humans to comfortably live in.

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