12 May 2022
A guaranteed privilege: Scorching heat might lead the world to include AC as a human right

9 million air conditioning units are expected to be sold in India in 2022, but that is only a fraction of the sales in countries like United States and Japan where 90% households have air conditioning and the climate is much milder. Policymakers urge governments to explore green cooling technologies in South Asian countries where the impact of temperature rise is being felt intensely, with record-breaking temperatures as early as March.


Air conditioning in households is common, but probably not where one would logically expect it to be – in hot tropical climates.

Nearly 7 million air conditioning units were sold across temperate Europe in 2018, the year that an unprecedented heatwave gripped the region. It is estimated that 90% of households in the United States have air conditioning. Most of United States has a temperate climate, with tropical regions in the South close to the Mexico border.

In India, 9 million air conditioning units are expected to be sold in 2022, according to consumer Electronics and Appliances Manufacturers Association. About 24% of households in India have at least one indoor cooling appliance, according to NFHS data (2019-21)

A glance at the figures and you know that air conditioning distribution is not equitable.

AC for climate justice

But why are we discussing air conditioning at a time when we know that cooling technology is responsible for releasing greenhouse gases into the air that lead to global warming, which in turn is behind the scorching heatwaves experienced in many parts of the world, including in India as we speak? That is because air conditioning is not going anywhere.

In fact, with the skyrocketing temperatures, more and more people will rely on some cooling appliance to regulate their indoor climate. And the best policymakers can do is ensure the cooling appliances are efficient, affordable and high on green rating.

Some researchers have argued that air conditioning should be looked at as a human right on the rapidly heating planet. To ensure a fair distribution of this crucial technology to tide over scorching heat conditions is a part of climate justice, according to them. Access to air conditioning should not be concentrated in the US and Europe, areas that do not witness the kind of prolonged heatwave conditions and soaring temperatures that countries like India do.

In India, too, the demand for air conditioning is growing. A Scientific American report says that by 2050, AC could account for 20 to 44 per cent of the peak load in India’s power grid.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the demand for residential space cooling will rise to 4000 TW per hour in 2050 and 10,000 TW h in 2100.

Experts urge that the time is right for governments to promote and incentivise green cooling technologies to supply this massive demand to ensure that use of air conditioning has minimal impact on the climate.

They point out that as the demand for air conditioning shifts to the tropics, which get a huge amount of sun, trapping solar energy to power cooling devices should be explored as a viable option.

To make air conditioning equitable, governments would have to work with manufacturers to make more cost-effective models which are of high quality. For this, alternative refrigerants or coolants which are environment friendly can be used.

Not just that, but according to the UNEP’s Sustainable Cooling Handbook for Cities, the approach should be multi-pronged and include – reduction of heat at urban scale (by increasing green cover and restoring water bodies etc), reduction of cooling needs in buildings (by using materials/insulation that keep hot air out) and serving cooling needs in buildings efficiently.

AC and productivity

The human body is also a machine that cannot perform if it is overheated. In the tropics, humidity amplifies heat stress and can cause illness or even death. Air conditioning is also closely linked to productivity. In an old, often cited interview, the ‘father of Singapore’ Lee Kuan Yew famously said that air-conditioning was the single most important invention of the 20th century. Why? Because it helped offices and factories function year round in the country that lies 137 km north of the equator.

Away from modern offices and manufacturing units, a third of south Asia’s population depends on outdoor work and it becomes imperative to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius to avert the crisis that brutal heatwaves can inflict on these vulnerable populations.

To identify growing energy intensive markets and switch them to renewables or green technology is the need of the hour.


Source: Times Now

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