The lure of air conditioners ignores the vicious climate cycle

Warm summer evenings have come to the UK, leaving the country sleepless in the heat. But when Brits reach for the air conditioning, they find that it is not there. Just 1 per cent of buildings in the UK have fixed cooling systems, one of the lowest rates in Europe, and a further 3-5 per cent have portable cooling systems.

That is likely to change as summers get warmer. By 2035, around 20 per cent of London homes will need air conditioning, according to a recent report from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. By 2075, around 50 per cent will.

That’s a lot of new AC units. These will use huge amounts of electricity, far more than any other appliance in the house — and they will have an emissions impact to match. In this way, the easiest household solution to more warming — more cooling — aggravates the problem.

At the moment though, even those who may want to buy an air con unit can’t get one, not only because of the heatwave, but due to supply chain shortages of the circuit boards that control the temperature and air flow. “It was bad last year, but it is worse this year,” said Garrion Leeds, owner of an air-conditioning installation company in Gloucester. “Whether it’s a combination of Brexit, chips, and lack of shipping — it just seems to be a perfect storm.”

As the UK embarks on its air conditioning spending spree, it mirrors a transition that is already under way in much hotter places. In India, Indonesia or Brazil, air conditioner demand is soaring as incomes rise. Owning an air conditioning unit can be life-changing for those living in tropical climates. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s households will have an air conditioner.

Collectively, this will have a gigantic impact on our energy usage. Global air conditioning demand will triple by 2050 — requiring additional electricity capacity equivalent to the current capacity of the US, EU and Japan combined. That’s according to the International Energy Agency, which has for several years been warning of a “cool crunch” as this surge in demand starts to hit electricity grids.

AC and fans already account for around 10 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. And they are particularly challenging for electricity grids because demand surges on hot days — often threatening blackouts if the grid can’t keep up.

All the new units currently being bought by sweaty customers will also have an emissions impact: from the carbon dioxide produced by the electricity grid (unless it is all clean power) and the leakage of refrigerants in individual units. Yet as the planet gets warmer, more AC will be necessary to sustain human life in the world’s hottest places, driving a vicious cycle.

Access to air conditioning exacerbates the injustice at the root of climate change: people who are poor produce the least emissions, yet they are also the most exposed to the effects of warming. Meanwhile the rich can afford to buy their way out of it, or at least make themselves more comfortable.

There are some solutions to this dilemma, but none are perfect. Better-designed buildings, with more insulation, can help to combat the heat. Shutters closed in the day time can keep out the sun. And more efficient AC units can make a big difference to the amount of emissions produced as a result.

But as the UK grapples with its heatwave, the rush for air con is a reminder that climate change will make all of us adapt. Londoners sweating in a 36C heatwave is a mild example of a force that is much deadlier and more devastating elsewhere: look at the current wildfires raging across Portugal and Spain, or the deadly flooding in Sydney. Cutting emissions now could help to lower our need for air conditioning in the future.

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