Does air conditioning accelerate climate change?

Simple answer: yes, it does. Climate change and related global warming drives us to use air conditioning more than ever before. We are looking at the increased energy demand and ultimately related environmental stress cooling buildings creates, now and in the future. We need to slow down the acceleration of the aircon effect – the growing desire to keep cool equals higher electricity generation, equals more greenhouse gas emission, equals global temperature rise.

As temperatures are soaring year after year, the demand for air conditioning is growing at an alarming rate, and not just here in the UK. In China, for example, the number of households that have it has more than doubled in the last ten years. According to Lucas Davis, an energy economist from the University of California in Berkely, “60 million units are being sold there every year”. And China is not an exception. As wealth is rising in developing countries such as Indonesia, Brazil, India, and Mexico, staying cool at home or in the workplace is more and more seen as a necessity rather than a luxury, leading to severe energy shortages and major environmental stress, says Davis.

“Air conditioning is wonderful. As people are coming out of poverty, they buy a TV, then a fridge, then a car and air conditioning. There are a lot of hot places where people are getting richer,” he says. Davis expects nearly all households in warm countries to have air conditioning within the next 15 to 25 years and warns that the extra energy needed will be dramatic and could have huge consequences for global warming. “We are talking about hundreds of new power stations having to be built in China alone,” he says.

This research is backed by the US government’s Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory which has calculated that 700 million air conditioning units are likely to be installed by 2030 and 1.6 billion by 2050. And it’s not just hot countries switching to air conditioning. “Offices, hospitals, shops and homes in Britain are using air conditioning as buildings fill with computers, televisions and other heat-generating machines,” a spokeswoman for the Institute of Refrigeration says. She also said that better insulation in new buildings traps heat.

The UK Building Research Establishment estimates that cooling systems account for more than 10% of electricity consumption in Britain – an estimated 15 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). As stated by the UN climate change body, the IPCC, the global air conditioning energy demand will grow 33-fold from 300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2000 to more than 10,000TWh in 2100, with most growth in developing economies.

“10,000TWh is roughly half the total electricity generated worldwide in 2010,” says Martin Freer, director of Birmingham University’s Energy Institute. “Worldwide energy demand for space cooling will overtake space heating by 2060 and outstrip it by 60% at the end of the century.”

And here comes the “snake biting its own tail”-scenario. We live in a world that is warming because of emissions caused by fossil fuel. Therefore, more fossil fuels are burned to keep us cool, and the demand for air conditioning and refrigeration is known to be one of the greatest catalysts of climate change. “As climate change increases outdoor temperatures, air conditioning will more often be used to maintain comfortable indoor conditions. Climate change is expected to stimulate installation of air conditioning in buildings that would otherwise not need it,” says Freer.

Admittedly, the above is not an easy read to anyone who likes their creature comforts. So, what can we do to reduce the impact our need for a cooler environment has on the planet’s resources?

  • Reduce the hours of use. We are creatures of habit. Many people turn the air conditioning on first thing in the morning whilst in many cases the outside temperatures are still moderate. Maybe the unit doesn’t have to run until the indoor heat starts to make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Be mindful. Let’s face it – it is unlikely an ordinary air conditioning unit can reduce the indoor temperature to 16°C when it is 30 degrees outside, especially when doors or windows are left open – a scenario often lamented by energy managers we are speaking with. This doesn’t just eat up huge amounts of energy unnecessarily, it also puts a massive strain on the air conditioning equipment which will have to be replaced more often.
  • Turn the air conditioning off when the room is not in use. If your cooling units are not linked to a time clock or are fitted with a Passive Infrared Sensor (PIR) that turns it off when the room is vacated, use the remote or wall control – unless, of course, you are just off to get yourself a cup of coffee. Don’t leave the air conditioning unit running all day whilst on the beach or shopping just to come back to cool environment. Modern equipment will cool the room down in no time.
  • Talk to us. We at Climateq specialise in retrofit controls that significantly help reducing the energy and carbon output of air conditioning units. Give us a call or send us an email, and we will come up with a solution tailored to your needs. Don’t just do it for the planet, do it for your own pocket. With a payback of around 12 to 18 months, you will start saving money in the short term. A thought worth your while, especially with recent hikes in energy prices.

For more information call us on 01202 556122 or drop us an email on

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