The cost of cool

Air-con­di­tion­ers do great good, but at a high en­vi­ron­men­tal cost. The rapid growth in their use makes it ur­gent to limit the dam­age

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - © 2018 The Econ­o­mist News­pa­per Lim­ited. All rights re­served

To save or to kill? The sci­en­tists give a lot of pros and cons about air con­di­tion­ers

“Air-Con­di­tion­ing can­not be a grand suc­cess in the [Amer­i­can] South for the rea­son that the hon­est na­tives of the re­gion recog­nise the nat­u­ral sum­mer heat as a wel­come ally, in that it makes the in­side of houses and of­fices agree­ably un­invit­ing.” In the an­nals of mis­taken pre­dic­tions, this one — made in 1935 by Clarence Ca­son, au­thor of “90° in the Shade” — mer­its an hon­ourable men­tion. In fact, air-con­di­tion­ing soon be­came uni­ver­sal south of the Ma­son-Dixon line, turn­ing the South into an en­gine of pros­per­ity and even re­shap­ing its pol­i­tics by lur­ing Repub­li­can mi­grants to a re­gion that had once been a Demo­cratic strong­hold.

The sti­fling sum­mer of 2018 in the north­ern hemi­sphere has been a ban­ner sea­son for air-con­di­tion­ers and a re­minder of how they have changed the world. Sales in France in the first three weeks of July were 192% higher than in the same pe­riod of 2017. In Ja­pan, the gov­ern­ment is help­ing schools in­stall cool­ers. In Texas, on the or­ders of a judge, the state gov­ern­ment has been putting them into pris­ons.

At cur­rent growth rates, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency (IEA), which ad­vises national gov­ern­ments, 1bn air-con­di­tion­ers will be in­stalled glob­ally in the next ten years. That would in­crease the world’s stock — 1.6bn in 2016 — by two-thirds (see chart). If you in­clude re­frig­er­a­tors and sys­tems that cool food, vac­cines and data, the stock could be 6bn units in a decade. The growth in cool­ing will save lives, im­prove ed­u­ca­tion and cre­ate wealth in the world’s hottest coun­tries. But it brings huge en­vi­ron­men­tal risks, warm­ing the planet even as it cools peo­ple.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime min­is­ter of Sin­ga­pore, took the view that air-con­di­tion­ing “changed the na­ture of civil­i­sa­tion by mak­ing de­vel­op­ment pos­si­ble in the trop­ics… The first thing I did upon be­com­ing prime min­is­ter was to in­stall air­con­di­tion­ers in build­ings where the civil ser­vice worked. This was key to pub­lic ef­fi­ciency.”

WHEN CHINA BE­CAME COOL

In 1990 few Chi­nese house­holds had air-con­di­tion­ing. Twenty years later, the coun­try had just un­der one unit per house­hold. It now ac­counts for 35% of the world’s stock, com­pared with 23% for the United States. In­dia and In­done­sia are see­ing rates of in­crease sim­i­lar to China’s in

At cur­rent growth rates, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency (IEA), which ad­vises national gov­ern­ments, 1bn air-con­di­tion­ers will be in­stalled glob­ally in the next ten years. That would in­crease the world's stock — 1.6bn in 2016 — by two-thirds (see chart). If you in­clude re­frig­er­a­tors and sys­tems that cool food, vac­cines and data, the stock could be 6bn units in a decade

the 1990s. The pop­u­la­tion of the 800km long south­ern coast of the Ara­bian Gulf in­creased from 500,000 in 1950 to 20m now, thanks to air-con­di­tioned ver­ti­cal palaces. At cur­rent rates, Saudi Ara­bia will be us­ing more en­ergy to run air-con­di­tion­ers in 2030 than it now ex­ports as oil.

At the mo­ment, only 8% of the 3bn peo­ple in the trop­ics have air-con­di­tion­ing, com­pared with over 90% of house­holds in Amer­ica and Ja­pan. But even­tu­ally, it will be near uni­ver­sal be­cause so many trends are con­verg­ing be­hind its spread: age­ing, since old peo­ple are more vul­ner­a­ble to heat stroke; ur­ban­i­sa­tion, since fields can­not be air-con­di­tioned but of­fices and fac­to­ries must be; and eco­nomic growth, since, af­ter mo­bile phones, the mid­dle class in emerg­ing markets want fans or air-con­di­tion­ers next. Even the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sky­scrapers in the de­vel­op­ing world’s megac­i­ties en­cour­ages air-con­di­tion­ers. Be­cause tall build­ings have dif­fer­ent air pres­sures at top and bot­tom, they usu­ally have to be sealed, and cooled in sum­mer. Shop­ping malls, open-plan of­fices and data-pro­cess­ing cen­tres are all in­con­ceiv­able with­out air-con­di­tion­ing.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists fret about this. An ar­ti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post ex­co­ri­ated “the de­luded world of air-con­di­tion­ing”. Another in the New York Times cas­ti­gated build­ings so cold in sum­mer that “I could pre­serve dead bod­ies in the of­fice.” Yet air-con­di­tion­ing makes peo­ple, lit­er­ally, health­ier, wealth­ier and wiser. A study by Tord Kjell­strom of Aus­tralian National Uni­ver­sity found that, in South-East Asia, peo­ple with­out cool­ing could not work dur­ing 15-20% of work­ing hours. It was too darned hot. Solomon Hsiang of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley cal­cu­lated that, in the Caribbean and Cen­tral Amer­ica, GDP falls by 1% for each de­gree above 26°C. In the trop­ics, cool­ing boosts pro­duc­tiv­ity.

The same goes for learn­ing. A re­cent study in PLOS Medicine, a weekly jour­nal, by Jose Guillermo Cedeño of Har­vard

Uni­ver­sity, fol­lowed two groups of col­lege stu­dents in Bos­ton dur­ing the sum­mer of 2016. Those liv­ing in air-con­di­tioned rooms did sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter in a va­ri­ety of cog­ni­tive tests than their peers in un­cooled digs. Stud­ies in Den­mark showed that air-con­di­tion­ing schools im­proved chil­dren’s abil­ity to learn math­e­mat­ics and lan­guages.

Most sim­ply, cool­ing also saves lives. Western Europe suf­fered a wither­ing heat­wave in 2003; 11,000-17,000 more deaths than nor­mal were at­trib­uted to it in France, mainly from car­dio­vas­cu­lar and heart disease. There was a pub­lic out­cry and the gov­ern­ment brought in a range of re­forms, in­clud­ing mak­ing air-con­di­tion­ing manda­tory in old-peo­ple’s homes. This year France has been even hotter than in 2003 but ex­cess deaths so far seem to have been much lower: the health min­is­ter re­cently said the num­ber of hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions this sum­mer has been only slightly greater than nor­mal. Europe, it seems, is learn­ing to cope. In Spain, ac­cord­ing to a study by Joan Ballester of the Barcelona In­sti­tute for Global Health, heat-re­lated deaths fell be­tween 1980 and 2015, though aver­age sum­mer tem­per­a­tures rose al­most 1°C and there were more old peo­ple. In south-west Ger­many, says Stefan Muthers of the Ger­man Weather Ser­vice, 2003 and 2015 were the two warm­est sum­mers in the past 50 years; 1,700 peo­ple died in 2003 but the death toll in 2015 was al­most 20% lower.

Heat­waves take an even big­ger toll in poor coun­tries that are un­able to pro­tect them­selves. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) fore­casts that, with­out adap­ta­tion (which is of course hap­pen­ing), over a quar­ter of a mil­lion ex­tra deaths could be at­trib­ut­able to ris­ing tem­per­a­tures by 2050 — about as many as the num­ber of deaths in child­birth now.

If the def­i­ni­tion of air-con­di­tion­ing is widened to in­clude cold chains for food, in­dus­trial pro­cesses or vac­cines, the over­all mar­ket in­creases — and so does its ca­pac­ity for good. Ac­cord­ing to Toby Peters of Birm­ing­ham Uni­ver­sity in Bri­tian, cool­ing for things such as in­dus­try, food and data stor­age uses only a lit­tle less en­ergy than air-con­di­tion­ing. Re­frig­er­ated trans­port is not far be­hind. These have as many ben­e­fits as cool­ing build­ings.

BE­TWEEN FARM AND FORK

In many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, half the food crop is lost to rats and in­sects af­ter har­vest. Re­duc­ing that through re­frig­er­a­tion in stor­age or trans­port could do more to boost over­all food avail­abil­ity than a new green revo­lu­tion. In the process, it would also limit the green­house-gas emis­sions from wasted agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, 600m peo­ple fall ill at some point each year — and over 400,000 die — from eat­ing con­tam­i­nated food. A quar­ter of liq­uid vac­cines are spoiled be­cause they are not kept prop­erly chilled. The death toll from dis­eases that could be vac­ci­nated against but aren’t, says the WHO, is 1.5m a year, more than die in road ac­ci­dents. Bet­ter cool­ing would re­duce all these harms.

How­ever, as Homer Simp­son, an Amer­i­can philoso­pher, said of al­co­hol, air-con­di­tion­ing is the cause of, and so­lu­tion to, many of life’s prob­lems. In “Los­ing Our Cool”, a book from 2010, Stan Cox, an agri­cul­tural sci­en­tist, listed some of its dam­ages: “emis­sion of green­house gases…ozone-de­plet­ing chem­i­cals [and] a lever to open eco­log­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble parts of the coun­try to reck­less growth.” He even blamed it for obe­sity caused (he said) by sit­ting around in ar­ti­fi­cially cooled refuges. A re­cent ar­ti­cle in PLOS Medicine, by David Abel and col­leagues at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, cal­cu­lated that, by 2050, there will be 17,000 ex­cess deaths in the eastern half of the United States from an in­crease of ozone and PM2.5 in the at­mos­phere (pol­lu­tants with a di­am­e­ter of 2.5 mi­crons or less). Air-con­di­tion­ing, the au­thors think, will be re­spon­si­ble for al­most 1,000 of those deaths.

Air-con­di­tion­ers pro­duce green­house gases in two ways. First, they are re­spon­si­ble for a share of the CO2 gen­er­ated in the power sta­tions that pro­duce the elec­tric­ity they run on. At the mo­ment, ac­cord­ing to the IEA, it takes about 2,000 TWhs (ter­awatt hours) of elec­tric­ity to run all the world’s cool­ing machines for a year. This pro­duces 4bn tons of CO2, 12% of the to­tal. With­out dras­tic im­prove­ments in air-con­di­tion­ers’ ef­fi­ciency, the IEA reck­ons, they will be burn­ing up 6,000 TWhs by 2050.

On hot days in Riyadh, air-con­di­tion­ers ac­count for 70% of elec­tric­ity de­mand dur­ing peak hours, usu­ally the early evening. Peak hours mat­ter be­cause coun­tries must build enough power sta­tions to meet the max­i­mum de­mand. But most of the time full ca­pac­ity is not used, mean­ing firms earn noth­ing from it. So en­ergy com­pa­nies build peak ca­pac­ity as cheaply as pos­si­ble, which of­ten means us­ing coal or diesel. So de­mand for air-con­di­tion­ing is push­ing coun­tries to build not just more power plants, but more pol­lut­ing ones.

Sec­ond, air-con­di­tion­ers use so-called “F gases” (such as hy­droflu­o­ro­car­bons, or HFCs) as re­frig­er­ants. When — as is com­mon — the machines leak in use or on dis­posal, these gases es­cape, do­ing vast dam­age. HFCs trap be­tween 1,000 and 9,000 times as much heat as the same amount of CO2, mean­ing they are much more po­tent causes of global warm­ing. On this ba­sis, Paul Hawken of Pro­ject Draw­down, a think-tank, cal­cu­lates that im­prov­ing air-con­di­tion­ers could do more than any­thing else to re­duce green­house gases.

HIT­TING THE FAN

Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, calls the in­sa­tiable en­ergy de­mands of air-con­di­tion­ing “one of the most crit­i­cal blind spots in to­day’s en­ergy de­bate”. Slowly, that blind spot is be­ing opened up. In 2017, the Lawrence Berke­ley National Lab­o­ra­tory in Cal­i­for­nia, a re­search cen­tre, cal­cu­lated the ex­tra car­bon emis­sions that could be saved if air-con­di­tion­ers were bet­ter. If HFCs were phased out and all units were as ef­fi­cient as the best ones, the world could be spared around 1,000 aver­age-sized (500MW ca­pac­ity) power sta­tions by 2030. There would be many more air-con­di­tion­ing units, but each would use less en­ergy. In In­dia, this would save three times as much in car­bon emis­sions as the prime min­is­ter’s much-vaunted plan to in­stall 100 gi­gawatts of so­lar ca­pac­ity by 2022. In China, it would save as much as eight Three Gorges dams (the largest dam in the world).

Such gains will not be easy to achieve. A com­mon way to im­prove en­ergy ef­fi­ciency is to im­pose min­i­mum en­ergy stan­dards or en­ergy codes for build­ings. But these vary from coun­try to coun­try (they are stricter in Ja­pan and Europe than in Amer­ica, for ex­am­ple). And most poor, hot coun­tries do not even have them.

Get­ting rid of toxic re­frig­er­ant gases also de­pends on reg­u­la­tion, in this case an in­ter­na­tional agree­ment called the Ki­gali amend­ment (af­ter the Rwan­dan cap­i­tal where it was ap­proved). The deal sets a timetable for phas­ing down the toxic gases. The trou­ble is that, to win the back­ing of trop­i­cal coun­tries, the agree­ment al­lows them more than a decade to phase the gases out. Since air-con­di­tion­ers of­ten have a use­ful life of more than ten years, it could take un­til 2038 be­fore the full ef­fects of the Ki­gali amend­ment come into force — a long time to wait when de­mand for cool­ing is grow­ing so fast. With the deal, ar­gues Dan Hamza-Goodacre, boss of the Ki­gali Cool­ing-Ef­fi­ciency Pro­gramme, a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion, air-con­di­tion­ers can pro­duce bet­ter health, higher pro­duc­tiv­ity and more food while lim­it­ing the rise in global tem­per­a­tures. In its ab­sence, peo­ple can­not have those ben­e­fits with­out the en­vi­ron­men­tal costs.

To save or to kill? The sci­en­tists give a lot of pros and cons about air con­di­tion­ers

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