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We need major air-conditioner innovation to keep us cool without warming the planet

Building more efficient AC and refrigerators could prevent the equivalent of eight years of global emissions over the next four decades.

We need major air-conditioner innovation to keep us cool without warming the planet
[Images: Grafner/iStock, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]

Climate change is causing our planet to get warmer and warmer, and as we all crank up our air conditioners in response to sweltering temperatures, we’re actually worsening global warming, paradoxically making it more hot as we try to stay cool. More ACs and refrigerators mean more greenhouse gases emitted into our atmosphere and more energy required to run them. And as more people in the developing world enter the middle class, they’re buying more air conditioners, exacerbating the problem even more.

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If we want to stay on track with the Paris Climate Agreement goals, a new United Nations report lays out how we need to focus on climate-friendly cooling. With more energy-efficient air conditioners and less super-polluting refrigerants, we could avoid releasing greenhouse gases equivalent to 460 gigatonnes of CO2 in the next four decades—like preventing eight years of total annual greenhouse gas emissions.

There are already 3.6 billion cooling appliances in use across the world now, and that number is growing by up to 10 devices every second, per the report by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Energy Agency. By 2050, experts predict we’ll need 14 billion units to meet everyone’s needs. “Without policy intervention, direct and indirect emissions from air conditioning and refrigeration are projected to rise 90 per cent above 2017 levels by the year 2050,” the authors write.

Cooling isn’t just necessary for comfort. If we don’t have enough cooling technology, rising temperatures will cause more early deaths, increase lost and wasted food, and affect medicine production. The report notes how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of cooling even more; lockdowns have forced people to stay at home, and in hot countries where residents may not have air conditioners, that poses a huge health risk. Plus, vaccines need to stay refrigerated to be viable, and without climate mitigation, we could face even more pandemics in the future.

The good news, the report says, is that there are steps we can take to make sure our ability to cool down people, food, and medicine in the future is climate friendly. The Montreal Protocol’s Kigali Amendment aims to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), refrigerant gases that contribute to global warming. That deal was created in 2016 and could avoid up to 0.4 degrees C of warming by 2100.

But countries around the world still need to implement policy changes focused on climate-friendly cooling. The report urges for the development of Minimum Energy Performance Standards for all cooling appliances, and for more building codes that reduce the need for mechanical cooling by using better building design, green roofs, and tree shading. It also calls for better training for cooling technicians so new technologies can be adapted faster, campaigns to prevent the dumping of old cooling equipment, and utility regulations that can lower peak energy demands and provide incentives to residents to purchase more efficient appliances.

These steps to increase energy efficiency and move away from HFCs could help the world avoid cumulative greenhouse gas emissions up to 210 to 460 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, roughly equal to four to eight years of total annual global greenhouse gas emissions based on 2018 levels. Doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners alone could save up to $2.9 trillion by 2050 in reduced electricity generation, transmission, and distribution costs.

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“As governments roll out massive economic stimulus packages to deal with the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to accelerate progress in efficient, climate-friendly cooling,” Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director, says in a statement. “By improving cooling efficiency, they can reduce the need for new power plants, cut emissions and save consumers money.”

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