kottke.org posts about Stephen Buranyi

Air Conditioning is Warming the Earth

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2019

Modern society has an air conditioning problem. One of the most popular responses by the world’s population to global warming is to use air conditioning. Air conditioning is very greenhouse gas-intensive, which contributes to the warming of the planet. Which causes more people use air conditioning. And so on. In a long Guardian piece, Stephen Buranyi lays out how air conditioning came to be so ubiquitous and how we might escape this air conditioning trap we find ourselves in.

There are just over 1bn single-room air conditioning units in the world right now - about one for every seven people on earth. Numerous reports have projected that by 2050 there are likely to be more than 4.5bn, making them as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today. The US already uses as much electricity for air conditioning each year as the UK uses in total. The IEA projects that as the rest of the world reaches similar levels, air conditioning will use about 13% of all electricity worldwide, and produce 2bn tonnes of CO2 a year - about the same amount as India, the world’s third-largest emitter, produces today.

All of these reports note the awful irony of this feedback loop: warmer temperatures lead to more air conditioning; more air conditioning leads to warmer temperatures. The problem posed by air conditioning resembles, in miniature, the problem we face in tackling the climate crisis. The solutions that we reach for most easily only bind us closer to the original problem.

Weirdly, the article doesn’t mention that most air conditioning units contain chemical refrigerants (CFCs and HCFCs) that, if released, “have 1,000 to 9,000 times greater capacity to warm the atmosphere than carbon dioxide”. Phasing out the use of CFCs & HCFCs in new units and capturing the refrigerants in discarded units can prevent global warming to such a degree that it’s the #1 way to mitigate the effects of climate change.