By Xianli Zhu, Senior Economist, Copenhagen Centre on Energy Efficiency
Summer in Scandinavian countries is typically sunny, yet brief and refreshing (some may say a little too brief and refreshing), with day temperatures rarely exceeding 25°C and night temperatures often below 10°C. It is almost like living in an air-conditioned room under the blue sky, surrounded by sea and nature. There is usually no need for air conditioning; an electric fan is occasionally useful and sufficient, and even the majority of family cars in northern Europe have no need for air conditioners.
This year, however, has been significantly different. The summer of 2018 has been scorching and long in many of the high-latitude countries in the north, with weeks of temperatures close to and even above 30°C. Wild fires have erupted across the UK and Canada in June and then in Greece and Sweden during July. With these blistering temperatures, air conditioners may very well soon become a summer necessity in these northern countries. Currently, local shops have sold out all their electric fans and people are waiting for new supplies. Air conditioner sales have been increasing in Italy, France, Germany, UK, and Poland. Attracted by the promising new market, major air conditioner markers like Samsung, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi have all set up sales offices in Europe.
A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicated that, globally, there are now 1.6 billion air conditioners in use, and their electricity consumption is more than 2.5 times of the total electricity use in Africa. Meanwhile, among the 2.8 billion people living in hot climate areas, only 8% currently have air conditioners. It is expected that with population and income growth, the ownership and use of air conditioning will continue growing rapidly, making it another important factor driving up global electricity use and warming. The IEA projected that by 2050, the global demand for air conditioners could triple and therefore call for energy policy makers pay more attention to the ‘blind spot’ of electricity growth from space cooling.
In addition, while air conditioners help makehot and humid days less sweaty, they also emit greenhouse gases from their refrigerant leakage and electricity use, which contribute to further global warming. While the indoor units cool and dehumidify the room air, the outdoor compressors spout hot air and drip water. A more important reason is that the refrigerants used in air conditioners, the HFCs, are thousands of times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. And beside this, when air conditioners use electricity, it also leads to greenhouse gas emissions during the electricity generation process.
On summer days, when most households turn on their air conditioners, the electricity demand spikes up, leading to grid outrages. To accommodate such high peak loads, substantial investments are needed to build power plants that are only put into use a small proportion of the time in a year.
The global community is realising the serious global warming impacts of highly climate destructive HFCs refrigerants. In 2016, almost 200 countries reached the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which set a schedule for countries to reduce the production and consumption of HFCs by 80-85% by the late by late 2040s. HFCs phasedown is expected to prevent the emission of up to 105 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gases, helping to avoid up to 0.5 °C of global temperature rise by 2100.
The phasedown provides a good opportunity for improving the energy efficiency of air conditioners. Now it is expected that the Kigali Amendment, based on the effective technical and financial supporting structure under the Montreal Protocol, could effectively support the global shift to less climate destructive refrigerants. EU, Australia, and Japan have already announced their plans and regulations to eliminate the use of HFCs, and developed countries and philanthropic donors have already pooled USD 80 million to support developing countries for faster integrated actions on HFCs phasedown and energy efficiency improvement.
Consumers can minimize the global warming impacts of their air conditioning use through buying and using to HFC-free and super-efficient air conditioners. Air conditioners using refrigerants that cause much less or no climate damage, such as ammonia, CO2, water, and HFOs, are already available on some markets. Moreover, it is important to be aware that the efficiency of ACs varies widely. On current markets, some air conditioner models consume more than twice the amount of energy compared to the most efficient models available. By paying attention to the energy efficiency performance and the refrigerant used, people can save money from lower energy bills and avoid further contributing to an even hotter global climate.