Globally, July 2015 was an unusually warm month, when an intense heat wave brought record-breaking – and dangerously hot conditions to much of the Middle East. The heat index in Bandar Mashar reached 74 degrees Celsius on the last day of that month. What this means is that under these conditions, even the healthiest and fittest man or woman could not survive for more than a few hours outside. It is predicted that if the present trends continue, people would have to be evacuated from large areas in the Persian Gulf region.
On May 23, 2016, the town of Phalodi in Rajasthan shot up to a burning 51 degrees Celsius. It was the second day in a row the town experienced temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius. The previous temperature record in India was held by Alwar, also in Rajasthan, at 50.6 degrees Celsius in 1956. India has recorded higher than normal temperatures throughout 2016. February 2016 was the 372nd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.
The only way to cope and keep cool is to use air conditioners. Americans use five percent of all of their electricity for cooling homes and buildings. In many developing countries, air conditioning is still a relative rarity, but as countries like India become more prosperous, we are going to install large amounts of air conditioning, not just for comfort but as a health necessity. “People are getting richer all around the world, and they’re buying air conditioners,” explains Lucas Davis of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s pretty startling, actually.”
China, for instance, has seen a doubling of air conditioner sales in just five years. Air conditioner sales are now increasing in India, Indonesia and Brazil by between 10 and 15 percent every year. A study done by the National Academy of Sciences in the US found a close relationship between household income and air conditioner adoption.
According to a report published in October 2015 by the Berkeley National Laboratory, the world is poised to install 700 million air conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion of them by 2050. In terms of electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions, that’s like adding several new countries to the world. Air conditioning may be a good thing, because protecting people from intense heat is essential for their health and well-being. It’s just that it’s going to come with a massive energy demand, and a bigger environmental impact.
While engineers are trying to find creative solutions to lessen the energy impact of air conditioners by making them much more energy efficient, scientists are racing to make them less dependent on HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants, because these substances themselves act as powerful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. HFCs are now the fastest growing greenhouse gases, with global warming potential thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide.
The Berkeley study found that if the world can shift toward 30 percent more efficient air conditioners, and phase out HFCs at the same time, that could effectively offset the construction of as many as 1,550 peak power plants. It further found that in terms of emissions avoided, this approach would have an even bigger impact than huge renewable energy projects – saving eight times as many emissions as China’s Three Gorges dam, and two times as many as India’s solar initiative.
So, when you go looking to buy an air conditioner, check if it’s energy efficient and if it is using HFCs, and do your bit to keep your home cool but at the same time, save the planet.