Rising demand for air conditioners will worsen global warming if steps aren’t taken to change the cooling technology we currently use, says a new study from the Berkeley National Laboratory.
In the last two years, alone, numerous locations around the globe have seen higher temperatures than ever before recorded. Cambodia, Tonga, Botswana, and India all set new all-time record high temperatures in 2016.
As a result, air conditioner sales in many emerging high population economies such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia are growing at a rate of 10 to 15 percent per year,which means the world’s supply of A/C units could increase from about 900 million today to roughly 1.6 billion by 2030.
Hydrofluorocarbons emitted from the refrigerants used in such devices are now the fastest growing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with the potential to increase global warming thousands of times more so than carbon dioxide.
Increasing air conditioners’ efficiency will also help to ensure they use less power, which in most developing countries is still produced by burning fossil fuels.
Researchers at MIT found that mass amounts of cooling units release heat back into the environment, which is particularly problematic in urban areas, where it enhances the heat island effect present in most major cities.
“The more cooling you have, the more heat air-conditioning systems release into the urban environment, which then elevates the ambient temperature and further increases the cooling demand. It’s a vicious cycle,” Afshin Afshari, a professor of practice of engineering systems and management and a member of the MIT research team.
The study was conducted in the national capital of the of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. Results found that the city’s heat island effect is responsible for up to 15 percent of the nation’s yearly cooling load.
Since most of the country’s air-conditioners run on electricity generated by natural gas-fired power plants that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, reducing Abu Dhabi’s cooling load would decrease the country’s carbon footprint.
The Berkeley National Laboratory study found that transitioning to less harmful refrigerant materials and improving the energy efficiency in air conditioning units together roughly doubles the benefit of pursuing either strategy separately.
By the study’s estimates, shifting the world’s 2030 world stock of room air conditioners to high-efficiency units using refrigerants with low global warming potential would save between 340-790 gigawatts of peak load globally. China’s portion alone would equal savings of more than eight times the current power production of the Three Gorges dams.
This has led to proposals from Africa, Europe, India,Island States, and North America to amend the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer to phase down high refrigerants with this global warming potential.