Triple Pundit: Is Air Conditioning Heating Up The Planet?
With summer temperatures on the rise, a group of authors and environmentalists look at possible ways to reduce the impact of how we keep cool.
Stan Cox is a senior researcher at the Land Institute. His book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air Conditioned World, describes the threat that our ever-increasing need for air conditioning poses to efforts to maintain our planetary climate within its natural limits, the limits that all living things on the planet have evolved to thrive in.
Consider these facts.
- With temperatures rising, those with air conditioning will be using it more frequently.
- As people in developing countries move into the middle class, they will buy air conditioners as a high priority item, especially in hot countries like India.
- Much of the electricity for these units is provided by fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming
- New refrigerants called HFC’s, which were developed to avoid the impact on the ozone layer associated with CFC’s, are, unfortunately, potent greenhouse gases (GHG) and these will eventually leak out
Furthermore, air conditioning has encouraged people to move into and develop previously uninhabitable areas (e.g. Phoenix) that are inherently unsustainable without massive inflows of energy and fresh water. These people are now totally dependent on air conditioning for their survival.
Cox was recently a guest on Diane Rehm’s radio talk show on NPR as part of her Environmental Outlook series. In that program Cox claimed that the overall impact of air-conditioning systems in both vehicles and buildings today is almost half a billion metric tons, which is about 7% of the US total. Cox went on to say that if we remain on our current course, we can expect electricity used to power air-conditioners to increase tenfold by 2050. This is despite significant increases in a/c efficiency which has gone up 30% just in the past few years. He goes on to say that in many instances, air-conditioning is “non-essential.”
Cox has done a valuable service in calling attention to this important issue, though I would have to say that his concerns going forward are somewhat exaggerated. There are a number of forces already at play in a variety of areas that will drive these numbers lower. As we move forward and the need becomes even more apparent, these forces will most certainly be joined by others.
A number of the following ideas were pointed out by Diane’s other guests on the show, including Steve Yurek of the Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, Durwood Zaelke of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, and NY Times environmental reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, as well as various callers.
Among these are, on the equipment side: non-refrigerated cooling (such as evaporative cooling), geothermal heat pumps (which can pump heat into or out of a building), thermal energy storage systems (in which ice is made at night, when it can be done more efficiently, and used the following day to cool buildings), energy recovery ventilators (that extract heat and moisture from fresh air coming in), and absorption cooling in which a heat source is substituted for the mechanical action of the compressor. This latter opens the door for solar cooling, which is a tremendously appealing concept, since the energy source is always present when it is needed most.
Originally published on Triple Pundit, republished with kind permission