AirCon Numbers: Looming Emissions Crunch

The International Energy Authority (IEA) has warned that as global temperatures rise, demand for power to run billions more aircon units will spike. Worryingly, it says that they are likely to become the number one driver of future demand for electricity. By Jeremy Torr.

20 August 2018, Paris. The growing use of air conditioners in homes and offices around the world will be one of the top drivers of global electricity demand over the next three decades, according to new analysis by the International Energy Agency. The report, The Future of Cooling, says that without new efficiency standards that apply to cooling devices, the world will be facing a “cold crunch” from the growth in aircon units in coming decades. The report stresses the urgent need for regulation and standards agreement among the major manufacturing nations as part of a movement to improve cooling efficiency worldwide.

 There will be an estimated 5.6 billion aircon units humming worldwide by 2050. Courtesy Wikipedia.

There will be an estimated 5.6 billion aircon units humming worldwide by 2050. Courtesy Wikipedia.

“Growing electricity demand for air conditioning is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate,” says Dr Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director. “With rising incomes, air conditioner ownership will skyrocket, especially in the emerging world,” she adds. Birol notes that it is critical that efficiency performance for the next generation of aircon units is prioritised to avoid a blowout in power consumption figures, and a corresponding spike in power generation emissions.

“While [we accept] they will bring extra comfort and improve daily lives, standards for the bulk of new aircon designs are much lower than where they should be,” she says. There is a partial solution however, says the IEA. It claims that potential air conditioner efficiency design improvements could cut energy demand growth by up to 50% - but only if mandatory energy performance and design standards are broadly accepted.

Rising demands

 The developed world leads - but other, hotter countries are poised to catch up on aircon numbers.

The developed world leads - but other, hotter countries are poised to catch up on aircon numbers.

Underlining this “elephant in the climate change room” scenario, the IEA says global energy demand purely from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050. It predicts the global stock of air conditioners in buildings is predicted to grow from 1.6 billion today to 5.6 billion by 2050. This is the equivalent of 10 new aircon units sold every second for the next 30 years, with an exponential rise as countries develop, urban temperatures rise, and ever more aircon units pump extra heat into the atmosphere.

Even today, using air conditioners and electric fans to cool inhabited (and sometimes empty) buildings already accounts for around 20% of the total power consumption in the world’s built environment. That’s approximately 10% of all global electricity consumption.

But as incomes and living standards improve across developing countries, the growth in airconditioning demand in hotter regions is set to soar. Aircon use is expected to be the second-largest growth element in global power demand after the manufacturing industry sector. By 2050, it will be top of the power demand list, worldwide.

 Äircon is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.” - Dr Fatih Birol, IEA CEO. Courtesy IEA.

Äircon is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.” - Dr Fatih Birol, IEA CEO. Courtesy IEA.

One crucial factor is that the efficiency of aircon units can vary widely. For example, units sold in Japan and the European Union are typically 25% more efficient than those sold in the US and China, despite claims to be “developed” economies. According to Stan Cox, a climate researcher, the US consumes more energy for aircon than any other country. That is partly due to lazy design; turn off the aircon in may US offices and the rooms become uninhabitable. Likewise many multi-storey apartment buildings would turn into glass-fronted heat traps. They will need aircon, no matter what happens to the climate. And that means about 100 million tons of power-generating carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year.

To run all the extra aircon units predicted by the IEA, there will be a huge hike in demand for additional electricity production. The IEA estimates this expansion to be somewhere around a doubling of the current power capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan combined.

Another aspect of increased aircon density is the hydrofluorocarbon question. HFCs are now the most widely used aircon coolant gas, replacing the previously ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They do not contain ozone-destroying chlorine or bromine atoms, and are widely used as substitutes for CFCs in refrigeration, aircon and insulating foams. 

 NOAA's Fahey says HFCs may become an added aircon problem. Courtesy NOAA.

NOAA's Fahey says HFCs may become an added aircon problem. Courtesy NOAA.

However, scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory looked at how the global use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is expected to grow in coming decades, and looking beyond 2050, they estimate that HFCs - especially from developing countries - will become an increasingly large factor in future climate warming.

"HFCs are good for protecting the ozone layer, but they are not climate friendly," said David W. Fahey from NOAA. "Our research shows that their effect on climate could become significantly larger than we expected, if we continue along [with] business-as-usual."

Although HFCs currently exhibit a less-than 1% climate change contribution – negligible compared to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the NOAA study predicts that by 2050, HFCs will rise to 7-12% of the CO2 levels.

Keeping cool

Despite these gloomy predictions, the IEA says efficiency improvements and higher design standards could cut the energy growth demanded by aircon units in half, using mandatory energy performance standards. This may bring extra costs to the manufacturers and consumers – but so would a dramatic increase in power generation capacity if nothing is done to make aircon units more efficient, globally.

The IEA report identifies key policy actions. In an Efficient Cooling Scenario, which is compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement, the IEA cites stringent minimum energy performance standards which could double the energy efficiency of aircon units worldwide by 2050. This would greatly reduce the need to build new electricity infrastructure to meet rising demand. 

“Setting higher efficiency standards for cooling is one of the easiest steps governments can take to reduce the need for new power plants, and allow them at the same time to cut emissions and reduce costs,” said Dr Birol.

Birol and his team also note that making aircon designs more efficient would bring multiple benefits beyond basic power consumption. They would become cheaper, less leaky, more secure, and more sustainable. Together these advances could save almost US$3trillion in investment, fuel and operating costs.

But time is tight for the aircon business. As economies develop, the rise in cooling demand will be particularly important in the equatorial, developing regions of the world. Today, less than a third of global households own an air conditioner. In countries such as the US and Japan, more than 90% of households have aircon. In the populous equatorial regions, that slumps to just 8% - of the 2.8 billion people living in the hotter zones.

 Projected power consumption for cooling is set to overtake all other sectors.

Projected power consumption for cooling is set to overtake all other sectors.

This shows the growth of aircon usage will be particularly sensitive in the fastest-growing nations, with the biggest increase happening in hot countries like India – where the share of aircon in peak electricity load could explode from 10% today to as much as 45% in 2050.

If un-addressed, this could lead to massive investments in new power plants to meet peak power demand; renewable sources could not meet such a big increase, especially at night when most users switch on. 

Despite flagging possible solutions, IEA’s Birol is not that optimistic in the long term. Speaking at the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy & Climate about these issues, and about climate change in general, he gave a bleak outlook.

"I am not very hopeful now that we will be able to reach our targets unless there are major, huge technological breakthroughs," he said.