Air Conditioning Concerns: How Keeping Cool Hurts the Environment

Air conditioners
Photo credit: Todd Morris

During the hot summers, almost everyone turns to the cold comfort provided by air conditioning. But what many people don’t realize – or chose to overlook – is the environmental harm air conditioning brings with it.

According to The Guardian“vehicle air conditioners in the United States alone use 7 to 10 billion gallons of gasoline annually” and due to “demand in warmer regions, it is possible that world consumption of energy for cooling could explode tenfold by 2050, giving climate change an unwelcome dose of extra momentum.”

The Guardian also shares how developing countries are joining the AC-bandwagon:

As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.

So what does this mean for the environment? Most air conditioners in homes (and businesses) are run from fossil fuels like coal. Not only do the fossil fuels release carbon emissions, but energy is also lost in generating and transmitting electric power. Needless to say, it takes more energy to cool down a house than to heat up a home.

Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, told The Independent: “Air conditioning’s environmental damage is not limited to emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting chemicals. Lavish deployment of indoor climate control may indeed make it possible for us to live anywhere on the planet, but is that wise?”

But that’s not to say that we should all be sweating in discomfort all summer long, but we definitely need to be more fiscal with air conditioning. First and foremost, consumers should be researching for the most energy efficient and the up-and-coming models that may be a worthy investment. For instance, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. will be launching the  “ZW series” of household air conditioners that are programmed to automatically switch to a low-power consumption mode when nobody is in the room.

Other ways to cool your home include opening your windows and turning fans on to create air flow, taking a shower or getting wet to cool off your body and consider optimizing your basement (which tends to be cooler). If air conditioning practices don’t change, our planet may be in big trouble.

According to Guus Velders of the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment and his colleagues, refrigerants (fluids essential in air conditioners that absorb and release heat efficiently at the right temperatures) that accumulate in the atmosphere between now to 2050 will add another 14 to 27 percent to the increased warming caused by all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions.