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Air-Conditioning Is Heating Up the Globe

Air-Conditioning Is Heating Up the Globe

As the middle class in China and India has grown, so has the demand for air-conditioning: Sales for air conditioners have risen 20 percent each year in both countries and air-conditioner units have become a new status symbol and dowry item. But even as the units cool down temperatures indoors, scientists have become more and more concerned about their effect on the environment and, in particular, on global warming, says the New York Times. The cooling demands for just one city, India’s Mumbai (formerly Bombay), are a quarter of those for the entire US, it is estimated.

Air-Conditioners, the Ozone Layer and Global Warming

The 1987 Montreal Protocol regulates air-conditioning gases, to protect the ozone layer. The CFC coolants that were once widely used, and that are highly damaging to the ozone, have been mostly eliminated in industrialized countries and replaced by newer gases known as HCFCs. But these newer gases contribute heavily to global warming. In the US, an HFC coolant called 410a is now used in new air-conditioning units; while labeled “environmentally friendly” because it does not affect the ozone, its warming effect is 2,100 times that of carbon dioxide. Scientists have calculated that, if all the air-conditioning equipment around the world uses HCFCs, they will be the cause of up to 27 percent of all global warming by 2050.

The Montreal Protocol does not extend to gases that affect global warming; proposals to gradually eliminate the use of HCFCs are being put forth at this week’s Rio+20 conference. Under the treaty, developing countries including China and India are to start switching from HCFCs to gases that affect the ozone layer less; the US and other wealthy countries are trying to push them to use gases that do not contribute to global warming.

We Can Build a Better Air Conditioner: So Why Aren’t We Yet?

But while gases that are both ozone-friendly and have fewer global warming effects do exist, these are not yet readily available, explains the New York Times:

Nearly all chemical and air-conditioning companies — including DuPont, the American chemical giant, and Daiken, one of Japan’s leading appliance manufacturers — have developed air-conditioning appliances and gases that do not contribute to global warming. Companies have even erected factories to produce them.

But these products require regulatory approvals before they can be sold, and the development of new safety standards, because the gases in them are often flammable or toxic. And with profits booming from current cooling systems and no effective regulation of HFCs, there is little incentive for countries or companies to move the new designs to market.

Air-conditioning units using HCFCs are cheap, readily available and therefore in demand. In 2011, 55 percent of new air-conditioning units were sold in the Asia-Pacific region; China built 70 percent of the world’s home air-conditioning units for domestic sale and for export. HCFC-22 is the most common coolant gas used.

The US, Canada and other wealthy countries can put forward the dangers such appliances mean for the environment. But countries like China and India, where sales of air-conditioners are flourishing, are in no hurry to have new treaty regulations introduced, even though doing so would be a cost-effective way to slow global warming.  Just as many Westerners would not think of enduring a 100-degree day like the one we’re having in some parts of the East Coast today without the air-conditioner blasting, so people in India have come to rely on air-conditioning to help children study, help everyone sleep and refrigerate their food.

We have the know-how to build truly environmentally-friendly air-conditioning units. But who should decide when nations around the globe must start using them?

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36 comments

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4:53AM PDT on Jun 25, 2013

Thanks for posting

6:40AM PDT on Jun 1, 2013

It is sometimes inevitable to use the air-conditioning appliance.

5:23PM PDT on Jul 1, 2012

Humanity has the technology to have and use non polluting air conditioners and yet they don't do so. They don't have to breed to billions and pollute like a cancer, yet they do so. Maybe humanity deserves its own fate.

5:19PM PDT on Jul 1, 2012

All this argument about money, convenience, economy blah blah in either the "developing" or "developed" (and overpopulated) countries becomes 100% irrelevant during a mass suffering and death event that becomes a certainty when the tipping point is reached and this planet starts to die. Your personal comfort along with some imagined freedom to pollute and reproduce is just an insane delusion when all life on this planet including human life is being destroyed by human stupidity.

8:58PM PDT on Jun 26, 2012

buildings need to be built in such a way to bring in a breeze in summer... I have only a small window in the living room which by itself is not enough. I could cool my room down somewhat if it were safe to leave the door open enough to get some air flow. Where are our building designers on this?
And all these apartment buildings with flat hot roofs that could have ecosystems on them? I've seen such a thing on the convention center which has gardens grasses and trees on the rooftop and which helps cut down on the heat. (it even has beehives and some birds have made nests) The know-how is there but isn't being made much use of.
I have a small portable air conditioner which I wheel out when I just can't stand the heat any longer, but I try to hold off as long as I can. Last year summer was so short I didn't bring it out for the few hot days we had.

1:54AM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

Bryan, it's not like this. Those in India who have money to buy an AC, have enough money to buy an efficient model as well. Believe me, I lived in Mumbai.
It's a problem of mentality, people over there and in US are dependent on them. In Eastern Europe we started to have high temperatures only recently, but since ACs were not available and affordable, were only a luxurious commodity, we got used to stand the heat and found natural ways to do so.
In Mumbai people who visited us and saw we are not using our fans and ACs were getting anxious only because of their misconceptions, because in reality one was able to do without.

8:16AM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

Every AC unit that cools an indoor area does it by transferring that heat energy outside. That's not so problematic in rural areas where the AC units are few and far between, and the heat has room to dissipate. But in the cities, where buildings are large and closely packed, it gets to be a significant problem, contributing to the "urban heat island effect." And the hotter it gets, the more people crank up the AC. It's a vicious circle, and we need to come up with feasible ways to break that circle.

I've been saying this for *years*. It's good to see that other people are starting to become aware of this, at least.

6:14AM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

I know this and that is why I do not use an air conditioner. Even in 110 degree heat, I keep active and well by taking salt in my drinking water - a flat teaspoon to the glass.

3:10AM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

It really doesn't matter how low or high you keep the aircon temp ... go outside and feel the hot air coming out the back of the system. That's what's heating up the environment!!
We do have aircon units at home, but only use them when it's absolutely, totally unbearable. Otherwise, we open the windows and doors, wear less clothing, and drink loads of water.

9:09PM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

I try to never use my home AC- (wear fewer clothes!)- but at work I have to dress in slacks and button down shirt- I get sweaty and am a big baby and turn on the AC...

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