A new United Nations report shows why it’s crucial to clean up air conditioning. In fact, the authors found that switching over to energy-efficient and climate-friendly air conditioning units could save the world up to 460 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the next 40 years. For context, that’s roughly eight times the amount of greenhouse gases the entire world emitted in 2018.
“If we deal with cooling wrong, we essentially cook ourselves,” Gabrielle Dreyfus, the cool efficiency program manager at the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said on a press call.
Cooling technology plays many important roles in our global society. The report estimates that worldwide, 3.6 billion cooling appliances, including refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioning units, are in use. As the climate crisis warms the planet, access to air conditioning will become all the more important. In the U.S., more people die from heat each year than any other form of extreme weather. The report shows that if cooling units were provided to everybody who needs them—not just those who can afford them—the world would need up to 14 billion units by 2050. But the way they’re made right now, air conditioners are emitting tons of greenhouse gases that heat up the planet.
In the 1980s, scientists around the world realized that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)—the chemicals used as refrigerants for air conditioners, aerosol sprays, refrigerators, freezers—were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer, which blocks the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. To remedy that, in 1987, governments got together to pass an international treaty called the Montreal Protocol, under which they pledged to stop using the harmful refrigerants.
For the most part, air conditioner producers aren’t using CFCs anymore. The problem is, they’ve replaced them with industrial chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) that warm the planet up to 11,700 times more than carbon dioxide. That means air conditioning could make climate change much, much worse, forcing more people to turn to air conditioning, and creating an unfortunate feedback loop unless world leaders help break the cycle.
Last year, governments adopted the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, under which they agreed to phase out the use of HFCs. Doing so could avoid as much as 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit (0.4 degrees Celsius) of global warming if it were adopted universally. As of this week, that amendment has been ratified by 100 countries. But 95 countries around the world still haven’t signed onto the amendment, including major greenhouse gas emitters like the U.S., India and China.
We have the technology to make air conditioners work way more efficiently by switching to more sustainable chemical refrigerants that not only reduce HFCs but carbon dioxide and black carbon emissions and require less energy. The report estimates that doubling the efficiency of air conditioners by 2050 could save us the use of 1,300 gigawatts of electricity around the world. That’s the equivalent of all the coal-fired power generation capacity in 2018 in China and India combined.
Since power also costs money, energy efficient air conditioning is also a great idea economically. Globally, doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners could save up to $2.9 trillion by 2050. To get there, the report urges all countries to ratify the Kigali Amendment and adopt national plans to change how cooling devices are made.
It also calls for countries to promote the construction of well-insulated, energy efficient buildings, as well as the integration of low-tech cooling options like green roofs and tree shading, to reduce the need for these technologies. That could also bring cost savings, not only for governments and developers, but also for low-income people. In the U.S., low-income housing is disproportionately energy inefficient, and as a result, poor people of color face far higher energy bills.
What’s clear is something needs to change. Cooling technology serves endless important functions around the globe. It protects people from extreme heat, increases how long food stays fresh, and is even necessary to store vaccines and other medical products. Getting rid of air conditioning isn’t an option, but given the scale of the climate crisis, neither is refusing to clean it up.