An overheating planet, combined with increasing urban density and rising incomes in the developing world, demands a system-level change in our use of air conditioning, writes TreeHugger Design Editor Lloyd Alter, in an urgent echo of a recent Economist report.
That change must take in three components, he adds: better machines, better refrigerants, and better buildings.
One of the “contradictions” in the battle against global warming, observes Alter, is that “to get rid of cars we need greater urban density, which increases the temperature…creating a need for more air conditioning.” That reality forced Alter to give up his previous assumption that air conditioning was just a symptom of bad design: “The window air conditioner allows architects to be lazy,” said design thinker Cameron Tonkinwise in 2010. “We don’t have to think about making a building work, because you can just buy a box.”
Now, Alter sees things differently. As The Economist notes, “at the moment, only 8% of the three billion people in the tropics have air conditioning, compared with over 90% of households in America and Japan”. The demand and need for the technology will grow ever more widespread “because so many trends are converging,” the magazine adds: an aging demographic in the developed world and an emerging middle class elsewhere, combined with a rapidly-warming atmosphere.
But “there is a huge carbon footprint to running all this AC,” Alter notes, with the Economist predicting that “at current rates, Saudi Arabia will be using more energy to run air conditioners in 2030 than it now exports as oil.”
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the energy needed to run air conditioning already emits four billion tonnes of CO2 per year, 12% of the global total.
To bend that future curve, Alter says one part of the solution is to “raise minimum acceptable standards of efficiency” on the air conditioning “box” itself. Next, countries must force “foot-draggers” among nations to ratify and implement the Kigali Amendment banning climate-busting hydrofluorocarbons, due to enter into force on January 1, 2019.
Pointing to the United States as one of the delinquents, Alter mourns “the pile of right-wing anti-science organizations” lobbying Donald Trump to refuse ratification.
But it is The Economist’s third recommendation—phrased in its pages as something of an afterthought—that truly grabs Alter’s attention. Echoing the paper’s suggestion that “more buildings should be built with overhanging roofs or balconies for shade, or with natural ventilation,” and that “simply painting roofs white can help keep temperatures down,” Alter notes that reducing demand for cooling (or “coolth”, as the opposite of “warmth”) is an essential piece of the puzzle.
That will mean moving well beyond The Economist’s focus on natural cooling, however. “There have to be much higher standards for controlling heat gain through insulation, window sizing, and quality for when the old ways can’t cope,” Alter writes.
“Better machines are necessary,” he agrees. But at the same time, “we have to get away from boxes and think about overall systems.” Otherwise, in the words of Slate.com national correspondent William Saletan, humanity will be left “cooking our planet to refrigerate the diminishing part that’s still habitable.”