27 August 2020
How Staying Cool Indoors Warms The Planet

The advent of air conditioning more than 100 years ago fundamentally changed our world. It erased geographic limitations on where humans can comfortably live, changed the landscape of the modern city (imagine skyscrapers without AC) and enabled the advent of technologies like the microchip and computers that would be impossible to manufacture and operate without the controlled environment that AC provides.

But that’s only half the story.

Air conditioning has also had a negative impact on the climate. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the use of air conditioners and electric fans accounts for about 10% of all global electricity consumption today. This leaves us stuck in a dangerous cycle: The more air conditioning we use, the more we warm the planet — and therefore, the more air conditioning we need. Can businesses show leadership in this space and help break the cycle?

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. It’s not just about global temperatures rising, but also the consequences that could come as a result of that. Rising seas that put our drinking water and cities at risk, more severe storms and forest fires, and a massive reduction in crop yields are just a few of the issues we will face.

The business community has a critical role to play in solving this problem. Part of that role is holding ourselves accountable for our own emissions by adopting energy-efficient technologies and reducing waste. The other part is investing in the development of technologies that enable all of us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We are responsible for making it profitable to avoid emitting carbon dioxide so that solutions proliferate.

A Rapid Increase In Air Conditioning Emissions

Air conditioning is standard throughout much of North America, but this has not traditionally been the case across the rest of the world. Even in extremely hot and humid areas like Southeast Asia, India and China, air conditioning has been more of a luxury reserved for the wealthy.

However, we have recently seen an explosion of air conditioning usage in some of these countries as incomes rise, and it has the potential to continue. A report published by the IEA noted that “China saw the fastest growth worldwide in energy demand for space cooling in buildings over the last two decades, increasing at 13% per year since 2000.” And on a global scale, the demand isn’t going away: According to the IEA, global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050.

Covid-19 is also adding to the problem. A McKinsey & Company report suggests that buildings should increase fresh air intake rates and stop shutting down systems overnight and on weekends to help prevent the transmission of the virus. This could cause air conditioning energy use to be higher this summer than ever before.

How Can We Meet This Challenge?

When it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from air conditioning, it’s a two-front battle. The first problem is hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), the primary refrigerant used in air conditioners today, which are greenhouse gases that are 1,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. On this front, we are on the right track. In 2016, 197 countries adopted an amendment to phase down HFCs under the Montreal Protocol.

The other issue is that air conditioning uses an incredible amount of electricity (just check your bill this month). While air conditioners have become more energy-efficient over the years, the technology itself has remained relatively unchanged since its introduction more than a century ago. Even the most efficient commercially available residential/room air conditioners have achieved only 14% of maximum theoretical efficiency. Today, there are numerous efforts to fundamentally shift the way air conditioning works, thus reducing energy consumption.

Some research and development (R&D) efforts are turning toward all-electric, solid-state temperature control, which involves using devices such as thermoelectrics or electrocalorics to drive toward long-term efficiency. Others are looking at nearer-term hacks such as finding ways to reduce the humidity load that the air conditioner has to process (i.e., making the air conditioner feel like it is in Phoenix, when in fact it is in Miami).

Governments have shown leadership by adopting efficiency guidelines, investing in innovation competitions such as the Global Cooling Prize and funding early stage technology development. One example is the Emerging Technologies (ET) Program at the Building Technologies Office (BTO) of the U.S. Department of Energy. The program’s goal is to “reduce the energy use intensity of U.S. buildings by 30% by 2030, relative to 2010.” The BTO is working with national labs and industry partners to develop and introduce new energy-efficient technologies into the marketplace, and it has a subprogram specifically focused on HVAC, water heating and appliances.

These initiatives are a good and necessary start, but we also need business to step up with both innovation and adoption. If we can bring ingenuity and discipline to increase the energy efficiency of cooling our buildings, we can take a monumental step toward creating a more sustainable world — and we may sing the praises of air conditioning without caveat.


Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2020/08/24/how-staying-cool-indoors-warms-the-planet/#7039561c1a4a

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