• 09.19.13

You Know What’s Going To Kill The Planet? Air Conditioning

It’s so nice to stay cool in the summer. As countries in the developing world start getting in on that action, things could get ugly.

You Know What’s Going To Kill The Planet? Air Conditioning
[Image: Air Conditioner via Shutterstock]

What if the rest of the world used air conditioning like America does? It wouldn’t be pretty.


Air conditioning uses a lot of energy: 87% of American households have AC, burning through 185 billion kilowatt hours annually. If developing countries adopt it at the same levels–and they’re catching up fast–that could mean a big rise in energy demand, with all the problems that go with it.

University of Michigan professor Michael Sivak crunches the numbers for the American Scientist. Eight countries could exceed the U.S.’s AC-related energy consumption, he says. India by 14 times, China by 5 times, and Indonesia by 3.1 times. Mumbai alone could use energy equivalent to a quarter of current American use.

Sivak’s calculations are based on population and temperature forecasts, and assume that higher incomes and rising temperatures will drive up AC demand. Sales in China and India are already rising fast. Between 1990 and 2003, installations in China rose from 1% of households to 63%; other countries are now on a similar trajectory, Sivek says.

The total demand in the 169 countries analyzed (excluding the United States) has the potential for cooling-energy demand that is 45 times greater than in the United States today. …the future demand in all countries of the world outside of the United States—the United Nations currently lists 229 of them—has the potential to exceed the demand in the United States by a factor of 50


The looming AC time-bomb is likely to increase pressure to find alternatives. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “desiccant enhanced evaporative” ACs are one promising idea. Such units use 40 to 80 times less energy, according to scientists, though they’re not on the market yet.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.