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As the planet’s temperatures continue to rise, and climate extremes abound due to global warming, our addiction to air conditioning is one habit that demands further review. While the world gets hotter, we get even more dependent on air conditioning, but the irony is that these cooling appliances only exacerbate our warming world problem. In the wake of our climate emergency, The Guardian‘s Stephen Buranyi warns of the need to find real solutions instead of funnelling more flame to the fire.
Air conditioners are one of the most power intensive appliances inside the average Hong Kong household. To cool a single room, the unit consumes more power than running four refrigerators, and produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas that is warming up our earth.
According to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) Global Cooling Prize report, there are currently over 1 billion single-room air conditioning units globally, and this number is projected to rise to 4.5 billion by 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that by then, air conditioning will take up 13% of worldwide electricity use, and produce 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. What this means is that we are on a trajectory of an ever-worsening problem – it is a feedback loop where in order to relieve ourselves of the consequences of global warming, we are fuelling rising temperatures even more. As The Guardian’s Stephen Buranyi warns, this will “only bind us closer to the original problem.”
Indeed, the widespread adoption of the cold-air machine has enabled rapid industrialisation, office-isation and the rise of white-collar companies in hot and humid climates of the Southeast Asian region. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, famously dubbed it “one of the signal inventions of history”. However, the addiction to cold air that many of us have in cities in Asia is making the root cause of the issue worse.
Air conditioning units were originally manufactured for industrial use – engineers saw its purpose as to create the cold and dry conditions for industrial production, not for everyday use. In fact, manufacturers used to have to convince the public that air conditioners were a “necessity” rather than a luxury, before they began conquering our homes, offices and indoor spaces. And as electricity corporations started to notice the power-consumption of these little machines, they started pushing for the widespread installation of air conditioners too. In short, construction companies and electric utilities hopped on the capitalist trend in their pursuit for profit – which eventually posed some serious problems for our long-term future.
Asia was traditionally been home to naturally cooling architecture, before the air conditioner started to dominate the region’s cities. In the 1990s, buildings in Delhi were still designed with window screens and brise-soleils to deal with heat efficiently, without the massive use of power or emissions generated. Bringing back some of the architectural techniques that have cooled buildings for centuries might be one of the solutions to our global warming problem.
But beyond scrapping our current skyscraper designs completely, which would require an unfeasible overhaul of our city structures, we also need to design better air conditioners that are more energy efficient and can rely on renewable energy sources. “What has happened is we’ve expanded the affordability of the air conditioner, but as far as efficiency, they’ve improved but they haven’t leaped,” said Colin Goodwin from the Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) in conversation with The Guardian.
While technological solutions are developing, the best action we can individually take is to simply reduce air conditioning use. Allowing these machines to conquer our homes and offices, which more often than not is set at unbearingly cold temperatures, is not the cure. While it is reasonable for air conditioning to be used during an unusually hot day, we need to seriously question whether our “comfort” requires converting our rooms to below 20 degrees celsius when it is a mere 25 outside. Dictated by the benefiting corporations that have sold us the idea of needing them, we have become over-reliant on these machines to artificially create an “ideal” temperature (which, by the way, varies hugely between individuals).
Our planet is facing a crossroads. As the United Nations climate body IPCC has warned, we only have as little as 11 years left to avert our climate catastrophe. If we are to meet their recommendations to keep rising temperatures below 1.5 degrees celsius, our addiction to air conditioning has to stop. So it’s time to add reducing air conditioning use to the list of our daily actionable measures, on top of cutting down on meat consumption and travelling by air.
Lead image courtesy of Flickr.