Home News The legacy of Europe’s heat waves will be more air conditioning. That’s...

The legacy of Europe’s heat waves will be more air conditioning. That’s a problem.


Climate change is making extreme heat the norm in more parts of the world, increasing the need for adaptation. But in the case of AC, some experts are concerned about how to balance this need with the possible harms of a solution.

Global air conditioner sales more than tripled between 1990 and 2016, according to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency. This growth is likely to continue, with global energy use for cooling projected to triple again between now and 2050.

A large part of the increase in air conditioner adoption globally is concentrated in popular countries such as India and Indonesia. According to the IEA, by 2050, about half of the growth in air-conditioning cooling capacity will come from two countries, India and China. In these countries, incomes are rising and people are using air conditioners for the first time, says Enrica De Cian, an environmental economics researcher at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Italy.

But air-conditioning adoption is also on the rise in relatively wealthy countries, including Europe, mainly because urbanization and climate change are pushing up temperatures, De Cian said.

Many Europeans are still hesitant to welcome AC with open arms. “Thinking of air conditioning as a solution to heatwaves and climate change is of course somewhat problematic because of the energy being used,” said Daniel Osberghaus, a researcher in energy and climate economics at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Germany.

Today, cooling equipment such as air conditioners account for about 10% of global electricity consumption, and because most of the world’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels, it contributes a significant portion of global emissions. Because of their heavy energy use, “they do have a bad reputation,” said Kevin Lane, an energy analyst at the IEA.

Coolers are especially challenging for the grid, as they all tend to turn on at about the same time during the hottest part of the day. This problem is evident in places like Texas, where summers are hot and AC use is common. Texas grid operators often urge people to turn off their air conditioners during the afternoon rush hour to avoid blackouts.

Lane said more efficient alternatives to the window units common in cities today do exist. Split units or heat pumps can be used as both cooling and heating units and may be more efficient than current AC technology. The upfront cost of a heat pump is still relatively high, although the life cycle cost is comparable to other options due to energy savings.

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