Climate Risks Heating Up as the World Switches on to Air Conditioning

Until just a few years ago, the United States used more energy for air conditioning than all of the other countries in the world combined. It’s easy to understand why: the United States is a large country with a big population, and portions of it experience very hot summers, while other areas experience cold winters.  The technology exists, it is a developed nation, people are going to want to use air conditioning to stay comfortable.

Now, the phenomenon of air conditioning is starting to take off in other parts of the world. The world is warming up, more people have disposable incomes to spend on things like air conditioning, and small families are living in big houses because they can afford to. This means that air conditioning is becoming more and more popular even in countries where it was completely unheard of just a few years ago.

In 2012, it was estimated that air conditioning, worldwide, consumes around on trillion kWh, of electricity per year. That’s a substantial amount, and the amount of energy consumed each year for cooling systems could increase by as much as ten times by 2050. Given that there has been a boom in other energy-consuming activities, such as mining for cryptocurrencies, we are rapidly approaching a climate crisis.

The demand for air conditioning doubled between 1993 and 2005 in the United States, and the trend is still for demand to increase. Other countries, chasing the luxurious life and ‘developed’ status of America are copying American culture even down to driving similar vehicles and using similar devices in their homes.  Even in the United Kingdom, where people would sit out in their porches and enjoy a cool drink on a balmy summer evening, homeowners are opting to install air conditioning units to allow themselves to cool down.

Indeed, in some parts of the world homes are being built with air conditioning being a part of the plan. Those properties are designed in a way that makes natural ventilation either ineffective or simply not possible. Even the most environmentally conscious resident is left with the urge to turn on the air conditioning because conditions in the home are simply too stifling.

We Are Running Out of Time to Make a Change

In some ways, it is a blessing that a large portion of the world has only just discovered the joys of air conditioning, because it means that people in those countries are installing new units with low Ozone Depleting Potential and low Global Warming Potential refrigerants. Their air conditioning units are comparatively energy efficient, so the damage that they will do to the environment will be less than the damage that American homeowners and business owners would have been doing a decade ago.  However, the trend is still concerning.  It is likely that China will become the biggest user of air conditioning by 2020, and once a culture becomes accustomed to using air conditioning it is hard to turn back the clock.

Saudi Arabia, a major exporter of oil, may soon be consuming more oil than it actually exports, because of increased demand for energy for air conditioning. The state of California has had rolling blackouts for many years, and we are starting to see similar phenomenons in other countries. India was forced to shut off residential electricity for up to 16 hours per day a few years ago, and even China has been forced to resort to energy rationing.

The Montreal Agreement was designed to safeguard the environment by getting lawmakers to agree on a phase out of the HCFC refrigerants that are used in heating and cooling devices both commercially and in residential properties. Refrigerants are just one part of the problem, though. The energy that is used for air conditioning has to come from somewhere, and because air conditioning units are turned on and off throughout the day it is difficult to predict the amount of demand that there will be at any given time. Fridges and freezers consume a small amount of power all day, every day, and this means that the energy companies can predict that demand and always cater to it. It is harder to manage the supply and demand for variable yet power hungry applications.

Renewable energy is helping to pick up some of the slack for power generation, but it is far from being able to cover the air conditioning demand in the United States. If the predictions from the International Energy Agency are correct, renewable energy generation will increase by six times by 2050, but demand for HVAC systems is increasing too so even that huge renewable energy output would only cover three quarters of the demand for energy that air conditioning creates. That means we would still have to depend on other, rapidly depleting and likely hugely polluting sources of energy for other power uses.

Even if we were able to improve our energy generation, there are problems there too. Hydroelectric power plants cause ecological disruption. Nuclear power is out of favor after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and on a smaller scale wind power is hardly popular because of the visual disruption that the wind turbines cause, as well as noise pollution for those living close to them.

According to, Global demand for air conditioning is only going to increase, and since temperatures are gradually getting warmer worldwide that does make sense. The only way to quell the demand would be for governments to intervene and put restrictions on the use of air conditioning systems – at least until we figure out some kind of passive cooling system that will work instead. Sadly passive cooling has its own flaws, and does not produce the pleasant air quality that people who use air conditioning have become accustomed to.

Just as people pushed back against taxes on plastic bags and a ban on plastic straws, any moves to control air conditioning will be met with resistance. We need to do something, though, otherwise climate change could reach the level where no air conditioning could save it.