Air conditioning unit

Want Energy Solutions: Fix Air Con

The irony that air conditioning contributes to global warming is hard to miss: as temperatures increase, the more we use air conditioning—and the more we use air conditioning, the more we heat the planet. And yet this piece of the puzzle is largely missing from the climate change dialogue. According to this New York Times article by Lisa Friedman, one reason is that coolant chemicals (refrigerants) don’t make for a very sexy dinner party conversation.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the production of numerous substances, namely CFCs, that are responsible for ozone depletion, was signed. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) became the alternative. While HFCs are less directly harmful to the ozone layer, they are still greenhouse gases and, according to the EPA, are designated as having “high global warming potential (GWP).”

An amendment to the Montreal Protocol was reached in Kigali last year, geared to eliminate the use of HFCs. Another NYT article, reporting on the deal, states that HFCs “function as a sort of supercharged greenhouse gas, with 1,000 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide.” Phasing out HFC’s could mean “avoiding an estimated half degree Celsius of warming by 2100.” The richest countries, including the US, are supposed to freeze HFC consumption by 2018. But the United States’ relationship to this amendment is unclear at this point.

Reimagining cooling is essential to approaching the problem of climate change and one of the major factors that could lead to emission reduction. If we change how we cool ourselves, we could significantly lower our potential warming from the predicted 4 to 5 degree increase.

The Montreal Protocol caused such a shift in the production and science around cooling, motivated by our clear impact on the environment, that it gives this writer hope another agreement like it can be reached. The new amendment is one step of many, but it is a big step.

Factories that manufacture air conditioners are also a large contributor to carbon emissions. Friedman’s article goes on to discuss the efficiency of air conditioning production: demand for air conditioning is increasing, which means the energy needed for production will increase as well. “1.6 billion new air-conditioners by 2050 means thousands of new power plants will have to come on line to support them.”

The demand for air conditioning is growing rapidly. Without innovation, this will only contribute further to global warming, and hence to an even greater demand for cooling technologies—an endless loop. That’s why these issues of cooling chemicals and efficiency are starting to be approached in creative, interdisciplinary, and comprehensive ways, across the interconnected fields of science and design. Innovation and policy changes go hand-in-hand when it comes to air products, which, to me, is a pretty sexy dinner party topic.