The world is about to install 700 million air conditioners. Here’s what that means for the climate
The Washington Post, May 31, 2016
In just 15 years, urban areas of China went from just a few percentage points of air conditioning penetration to exceeding 100 percent — “i.e. more than one room air conditioner (AC) per urban household,” according to a recent report on the global AC boom by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And air conditioner sales are now increasing in India, Indonesia and Brazil by between 10 and 15 percent per year, the research noted. India, a nation of 1.25 billion people, had just 5 percent air conditioning penetration in the year 2011.
A study last year similarly found “a close relationship between household income and air conditioner adoption, with ownership increasing 2.7 percentage points per $1,000 of annual household income.” For Mexico in particular, it therefore projected a stupendous growth of air conditioning over the 21st century, from 13 percent of homes having it to 71 to 81 percent of homes.
Overall, the Berkeley report projects that 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.
To try to address this problem, Moniz’s department is participating in the Advanced Cooling Challenge, which is to be launched Thursday in San Francisco at the 7th Clean Energy Ministerial, a global meeting of national energy policy leaders. The goal will be to find creative solutions to lessen the energy and climate impact of an unstoppable trend toward more global air conditioning — by making air conditioners much more energy efficient, and also less dependent on HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants, because these substances themselves act as an extremely powerful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
“A 25 to 30 percent improvement in efficiency, which we certainly think is technologically possibly, can have an enormous difference in terms of, especially, peak demand for electricity going forward,” Moniz said.
The biggest country for air conditioning growth, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, is projected to be India, said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, which focuses on short-term, high impact fixes to the climate problem. The country experiences not only extremely hot temperatures, but has relatively little air conditioning installed so far — indeed, in coming years India hopes to first bring electricity itself to several-hundred-million people.