We need better air conditioners, but first we need radical building efficiency

Air conditioners in China
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter

Here are two articles that have to be read together. In the Washington Post, Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis write The world is about to install 700 million air conditioners. Here’s what that means for the climate.

They quote a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory lab that projects massive growth in developing countries, where as poverty decreases, air conditioning increases.

But as these countries boom in wealth and population, and extend electricity to more people even as the climate warms, the projections are clear: They are going to install mind-boggling amounts of air conditioning, not just for comfort but as a health necessity….

Overall, the Berkeley report projects that the world is poised to install 700 million air conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion of them by 2050. In terms of electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions, that’s like adding several new countries to the world.

They describe efforts to make more efficient air conditioners, noting that the Berkeley study calculates that a 30 percent increase in efficiency of air conditioners could “effectively offset the construction of as many as 1,550 peak power plants.”

But they are still looking at alternative refrigerants; this could take a while.

air conditionersLloyd Alter/ minisplits in Changsha/CC BY 2.0

The problem is that as these countries boom in wealth and population, they are building dreadfully inefficient buildings. In the Guardian, Fiona Harvey writes Make building standards top priority for tackling climate change,says IEA chief with a subhead that says it all: "Energy inefficient and substandard construction in developing countries locking the world into high greenhouse gas emissions for decades, warns Fatih Birol"

Buildings currently being constructed at an increasing rate in developing countries are locking the world into high greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, the world’s leading authority on energy has warned. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, told the Guardian that the world’s number one priority in tackling climate change must be to ensure those buildings meet higher standards of efficiency and safety. “This would be the single most important step I want governments to take, and they can take it tomorrow.”

In fact, we need both, and as Fatih Birol notes, we can have higher standards of building efficiency right now. That with radical building efficiency, air conditioners can be so much smaller, buildings can be so much easier to cool. Pretty soon small air conditioners may not even need refrigerants at all.

We do need better air conditioners, refrigerants and new technology, but radical building efficiency will get us there faster.

Tags: Air Conditioning | Green Building

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