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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Photo of Beijing by ernop