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Paradox of air conditioning

How to cool people without warming the planet?

Omar Irfan is Vox’s senior reporter on climate change, COVID-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also one of the permanent collaborators of Alam Juma radio program. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for Climate Wire at E&E News.

The world is currently 1.1°C – 2°F warmer on average than at the start of the Industrial Revolution. But given this seemingly small change in average, a large increase in temperature is very high. This has made refrigeration, especially air conditioning, vital to the survival of billions of people.

The damaging effects of extreme temperatures are already occurring in many parts of the world. The massive heat wave in India and Pakistan, home to 1.5 billion people, is now in its third week. Only 12% of India’s population has an air conditioner, but even these people are suffering. The heat has caused power outages, water shortages and dozens of deaths, although the true toll may not be known for weeks.

Western parts of Europe are also facing a heatwave, with temperatures expected to reach 40C or 104F later this week.

Texas is also currently facing a record-breaking heat wave, just as six power plants suddenly shut down. The state grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, urged residents to avoid using large appliances and set thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

These scorching temperatures are just the latest statistics in a pattern of increasingly warm weather. A heat wave that occurred once a decade in the 19th century is hotter now, occurring almost three times more often. Heat waves that used to occur once every 50 years are now nearly five times more frequent and reach higher temperatures. Heat records are broken so often that they barely register as news. In its latest review of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it was “almost certain” that heat waves have become more frequent and intense over most land areas since the 1950s.

Extreme heat events also occur over a wider area of ​​the globe, from the deep oceans to the icy regions of the Arctic. Heat waves are now such devastating events with long-lasting scars that some countries say they should be named hurricanes.

But the greatest risks from high temperatures are in places like India and Pakistan, which are closer to the equator and are already warm and have dense and growing populations. They are also less affluent, so when the thermometers reach triple digits, few can afford the cooling system.

Extreme heat wave in India and Pakistan

The planet will only get hotter, making parts of the world uninhabitable. The most optimistic scenario is that the average global temperature will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, leading to more intense and frequent heat waves. However, right now, the world is definitely crossing that goal.

Regardless of whether humanity gets its act together and drastically reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet, billions of people are in desperate need of cooling today and in the future. Their lives and livelihoods are at risk and this is one of the most important technological and policy challenges.

However, staying cool in the heat creates a paradox: Cooling tactics can end up making the problem they’re trying to solve worse if they use fossil fuels or leaky refrigerators that emit powerful heat-damaging gases. And the people who experience the most extreme heat are often the ones least able to cool down.

A worker drinks water next to power lines during a heat wave in New Delhi, India, on May 2.

Solving this problem requires addressing the murky issues of equity and justice, as well as developing better means of cooling beyond air conditioning. It is also necessary to review the role of cooling in society. It is not a luxury, but a necessity to live in the world we have created for ourselves.

Heat is dangerous and costly even before it reaches extremes.

Ambient temperature is so fundamental to our health that it is easy to overlook the importance and threat it poses. Extreme heat has been the deadliest weather event in the United States in the past 30 years, according to the National Weather Service. This is because heat has many ways to harm people. High temperature makes humans unable to dissipate excess heat. When the air temperature reaches higher than the body temperature, more heat enters the human body than outside it. which can cause hyperthermia, heatstroke and death. Some medications can be less effective with heat, while others can make people more vulnerable to high temperatures.

In warmer weather, pollutants such as ozone form more quickly, which can lead to breathing problems. In addition, heat stress is cumulative. High temperatures are especially worrying at night because it means people have very little protection from the heat during the day. Due to climate change, nights actually warm up faster than daytime hours.

Also, when extreme heat combines with humidity, the air can be deadly. To measure the risk from these conditions, scientists track the wet bulb temperature, the temperature and humidity conditions at which water does not evaporate. A higher wet bulb temperature means that it is harder for a person to cool down by sweating. A healthy person can withstand a wet bulb temperature of 35°C or 95°F for six hours. Older adults, young children, and people with underlying medical conditions begin to suffer at a much lower threshold. But high temperatures can cause damage even before reaching the highest limit. For people working in farms, construction sites, kitchens or factories, higher temperatures lead to more injuries. Avoiding these risks also has costs, as workers weigh lost wages against the potential for work-related injuries. Even in colder work environments like offices, studies have shown that high temperatures decrease productivity and performance.

Rachel Kite, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, who published a 2018 report titled “Chilling Perspectives: “Providing sustainable cooling for all,” she said. “The heat shock effect is amazing.”

This causes a lot of economic losses. According to one estimate, heat costs the US economy $100 billion annually. If no action is taken to mitigate climate change or the damage caused by it. This figure will increase to 200 billion dollars by 2030 and to 500 billion dollars by 2050.

There is some debate among researchers about whether extreme heat creates a greater public health burden than extreme cold, but rising average temperatures mean that record-breaking cold events are becoming far less common, while record The recorded heat will continue to rise.

However, in many parts of the world, air conditioning is not considered a necessity. In the United States, a few states mandate cooling in housing, while most states and municipalities have minimum heating requirements for homeowners. The federal government provides money to low-income households to pay their energy bills, including cooling and heating, but those households must have a cooling system in the first place. Air conditioning is not required in federal public housing.

So a huge part of the challenge in preventing heat injury is getting people and policy makers to recognize the threat and consider cooling as a life-saving tool.

Air conditioning climate paradox

Cooling technologies, especially air conditioning, have transformed societies around the world since Willis Carrier invented a device to prevent moisture from spoiling ink at a Brooklyn printing plant in 1902. These changes have had widespread and unexpected effects. Author Steven Johnson in his 2014 book How We Got Here: Six innovations that made the modern world connect the dots between the expansion of air conditioning and the election of Ronald Reagan: Air conditioning systems made the US Southwest more livable, and the area’s growing population became an important support base for Reagan. Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, said that air conditioning was a fundamental condition for the formation of his country. Currently, there are approximately 2 billion air conditioners in use worldwide, half of which are in the United States and China alone. According to the International Energy Agency, cooling systems such as air conditioning, fans and ventilation account for about 20 percent of energy use in buildings worldwide. This amount of electricity consumed globally for cooling is two and a half times more than the consumption of the entire continent of Africa.

It’s time to rethink your air conditioner

According to Carrier’s findings, chilling isn’t just for people. Refrigeration and freezing are essential for the production, storage and transportation of food, medicine, and electronic equipment. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050, air conditioning energy use will triple on its current trajectory—roughly equivalent to the amount of electricity China uses today.

In the current product of air conditioning, there is a big difference in the efficiency and energy sources they use. The spaces they cool are not all insulated in the same way.

There is also a big gap in people’s access to this system. The International Energy Agency notes that of the nearly 3 billion people living in the hottest parts of the world, only 8 percent have air conditioning. And within countries, air conditioners are not evenly distributed. Access varies by income as well as location. Last summer’s massive heat wave across the Pacific Northwest was particularly worrisome because few people in the region have air conditioning because of the temperate climate. Seattle has the lowest percentage of households with air conditioning of any major metro area in the United States. This likely contributed to hundreds of overdose deaths.

Inequality in access to air conditioning also runs along racial lines. Residents of colored in New York City account for half of all heat deaths, despite making up 22 percent of the population. Access to air conditioning is a key factor. Another thing is that neighborhoods with racial minority residents have less green space, foliage and tree cover. Instead, their neighborhoods often have more concrete and asphalt. This worsens the heat island effect and causes the temperature in these areas to rise more than their surroundings.

It is also a law of nature that you cannot cool one space without heating another space. In cities, heat from air conditioning at night can raise the ambient temperature by 1°C or 1.8°F.

Air conditioners are another direct problem of climate. Many of them use refrigerants, which are also powerful endothermic gases. Chemicals such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can be 12,000 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Small leaks of coolant in billions of air conditioning units can be devastating to the climate. An employee tests the performance of air conditioning units at a workshop in Fuyang, China, in May 2021.

The good news is that there is much that can be done. And some of this work is already underway. Cooling in an age of climate change requires a multifaceted strategy. In the current heat waves around the world, the priority must be to save as many lives as possible, even if the only options are fossil fuels.

There are many ways to curb the effects of air conditioning weather. In a 2018 report, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fateh Birol wrote: “The answer lies first and foremost in improving the efficiency of air conditioners, which can rapidly reduce the growth in electricity demand associated with cooling. » With greater energy efficiency, more air conditioning is done with less. Also, homes and businesses need better insulation and sealing to prevent waste.

Another approach is to produce more air conditioners that do not use HFCs or other heat-trapping gases. Many countries, including the United States, are phasing out HFCs. The US Senate will soon vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty that commits to an 85 percent reduction in HFCs by 2050.

At the same time, there will be a large market for sustainable cooling technologies. Kyte said: “There are billions of people who aspire to be rich, and when your income starts to rise, you want access to the cooler.

The electricity that powers air conditioners must come from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, so reducing coal, oil, and natural gas power in the grid and increasing wind, solar, and nuclear power is critical.

Technology alone is not enough. Air conditioning is only useful for people who work indoors, but millions of people still work outside. Lowering outdoor temperatures requires careful planning to ensure adequate shade and measures such as cool roofs. For some jobs, workers must have plans to keep them out of the sun during the hottest times of the day. In some places, the only tolerable times to work outdoors are at night.


How to redesign cities to withstand heat waves

Cooling may also require a more collective approach. Instead of installing air conditioning in each individual house, some areas can use regional cooling systems. And in emergencies, people will need public cooling centers.

Regulators must also step in. The United States does not currently have a national workplace standard for heat exposure, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now developing legislation to protect workers from high temperatures. Governments should also enforce stricter standards for energy efficiency in cooling.

Fixing extreme heat does not stop at the border. Countries that have historically burned the most fossil fuels now have the wealth to deal with rising temperatures, while countries that have contributed the least to the problem face the most dangerous heat with the fewest resources. Therefore, rich countries have an obligation to help places facing dangerous heat to expand cooling and help pay for it.

Kyte said: “I think the economic and global security case for investing in these countries’ ability to deploy ultra-efficient, non-polluting technologies is pretty clear.” “We all live on the same planet.”

So while billions of people face more intense and devastating heat, protecting them and avoiding further warming is in everyone’s best interest on Earth. Air conditioning is now an unfortunate necessity, but it’s also an opportunity to address some of the fundamental injustices of climate change.