Is Air Conditioning Heating Up the Planet?

Stan Cox is a senior researcher at the Land Institute. His book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air Conditioned World, describes the threat that our ever-increasing need for air conditioning poses to efforts to maintain our planetary climate within its natural limits, the limits that all living things on the planet have evolved to thrive in.

Consider these facts.

  • With temperatures rising, those with air conditioning will be using it more frequently.
  • As people in developing countries move into the middle class, they will buy air conditioners as a high priority item, especially in hot countries like India.
  • Much of the electricity for these units is provided by fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming
  • New refrigerants called HFC’s, which were developed to avoid the impact on the ozone layer associated with CFC’s, are, unfortunately, potent greenhouse gases (GHG) and these will eventually leak out

Furthermore, air conditioning has encouraged people to move into and develop previously uninhabitable areas (e.g. Phoenix)  that are inherently unsustainable without massive inflows of energy and fresh water. These people are now totally dependent on air conditioning for their survival.

Cox was recently a guest on Diane Rehm’s radio talk show on NPR as part of her Environmental Outlook series. In that program Cox claimed that the overall impact of air-conditioning systems in both vehicles and buildings today is almost half a billion metric tons, which is about 7% of the US total.  Cox went on to say that if we remain on our current course, we can expect electricity used to power air-conditioners to increase tenfold by 2050. This is despite significant increases in a/c efficiency which has gone up 30% just in the past few years. He goes on to say that in many instances, air-conditioning is “non-essential.”

Cox has done a valuable service in calling attention to this important issue, though I would have to say that his concerns going forward are somewhat exaggerated. There are a number of forces already at play in a variety of areas that will drive these numbers lower. As we move forward and the need becomes even more apparent, these forces will most certainly be joined by others.

A number of the following ideas were pointed out by Diane’s other guests on the show, including Steve Yurek of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, and NY Times environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, as well as various callers.

Among these are, on the equipment side: non-refrigerated cooling (such as evaporative cooling), geothermal heat pumps (which can pump heat into or out of a building), thermal energy storage systems (in which ice is made at night, when it can be done more efficiently, and used the following day to cool buildings), energy recovery ventilators (that extract heat and moisture from fresh air coming in), and absorption cooling in which a heat source is substituted for the mechanical action of the compressor. This latter opens the door for solar cooling, which is a tremendously appealing concept, since the energy source is always present when it is needed most.

On the building side, there are advanced control systems, which should help eliminate the problem of freezing indoors when it’s hot outside, advanced window glazing with optically reflective coatings, improved insulation and air sealing technology and passive solar design which takes building orientation, window location, and material selection into account before a structure is erected.

Then, of course, on the behavioral side, there is awareness raising and the possibility that people can be convinced that it doesn’t have to be winter cold inside during the summer (and summer hot during the winter.)

There will be new, energy efficient, low carbon, and renewable energy sources.

And finally, there will be government action. For starters, an international agreement along the lines of the Montreal Protocol, to further regulate the use of refrigerants to eliminate those with high heat-trapping GHG characteristics is urgently needed. The Montreal Protocol, widely recognized as the most successful environmental agreement ever passed, has not only dramatically reduced the hole in the ozone layer, it also, according to Zaelke, avoided the release of a volume of GHG emissions so high it would have exacerbated our current climate worries by an additional fifty percent! This agreement will eventually be followed by a truly meaningful international agreement on greenhouse emissions directly with mechanisms that will incorporate the true societal cost of various alternatives into the economics of energy.

There can be no doubt that such an agreement will eventually be passed. But sadly, thanks largely to intransigence on the part of the U.S. delegation; it is already too late to avoid significant harm.


[Image credit: dabblelicious: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

8 responses

  1. Living in the monsoonal tropics, aircon does help in hot weather…….but dry season now and no air con anyway.  BUT some people think they need it all the time.  A bigger issue is moisture removal to get the RH down.  Even a temp of 30C is ok if RH less than 45%.

  2. Newer A/C and refrigeration technologies are coming to market that are more energy efficient, with lower refrigerant charges, and are much tighter in preventing refrigerant leaks. There is also fast growing acceptance in specific applications for “natural” refrigerants with low-global warming potential (ammonia, CO2, hydrocarbons).
    The closing statement regarding U.S. policy appears to be targeted at progress on climate change; we should also recognize that the U.S. has been steadily pushing for a phaseout of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.

  3. Dir sir
    I’m from the U A E and outsaid temperature at night around 35c
    So kindly do u have an alternative 2 survived with or any other mean of healping human in this part of the world.

        1.  No – common sense. If a location is uninhabitable without tremendous energy expenditures, the location may have to be abandoned when the energy is no longer available.

          Alternatively, the inhabitants of the location may have to live as the inhabitants did centuries ago, with all the limitations that implies.

    1. Newsweek5555
      Many of the techniques mentioned about would apply to your situation. Evaporative cooling works particularly well in a dry climate like yours and it requires significantly less energy than a conventional a/c system.

  4. Wow, Mr. Siegel – you are sadly mistaken, and sending too much of the wrong message here. This is really a hard pill to swallow, though.  The AC industry people are putting a rediculuous spin on this story, and affecting your judgement.  Do you think in year 2012, we do not already know about A/C efficiency and have put it to use?  As Mr. Cox has pointed out, minor efficiency increases in the developed world will be unseen when hundreds of millions of new A/C systems are manufactured and come on-line in the developing world.  A/C is a huge power user, and using alternative cooling methods  will not serve our need to be cool. Evaporative coolers, ERV and Adsorption Coolers?  Please do some research before writing, these have already been in use for decades.  Go ahead, get one, replace your air conditioner, and let me know how that works out for you. Geothermal – OK, we can all go live near a volcano and have cheaper A/C bills.  Using energy to make ice, another huge power comsumption?  That has nothing to do with world-wide A/C and Refrigeration power consumption.  There will be new, energy efficient, low carbon, and renewable energy sources??  Just keep on dreamin’ and it will all be OK.

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