Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

Dangerous Demand for Air Conditioning

In a warming world, energy efficiency is key to climate safety

19 October 2018, Paris France The efficiency of air conditioners needs to double in a little over two decades as part of a drive to give the world a chance of avoiding dangerous climate change, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports today. Otherwise, the growing demand for cooling and the fossil fuel needed to feed that demand will cause still more warming in a dangerous feedback loop, even as it saves lives, creates wealth, and improves education in the world’s hottest countries.

The IEA’s Market Report: Energy Efficiency 2018 notes that the use of energy for space cooling has risen twice over since the turn of the millennium, making it the fastest-growing source of building energy demand. Adding, it will double again by 2040 unless the efficiency of appliances is improved.

The report shows the enormous potential of energy efficiency in combatting climate change, highlighting the size of the existing market and its prospects for growth. Cost-effective measures, using existing technologies could, by themselves, cause greenhouse gas emissions to peak before 2020, it concludes. Investment in energy efficiency will need to quadruple to make this possible, but will, on average, payback threefold.

The measures could also provide more than 40 percent of the cuts needed by 2040 to keep the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change while allowing the growth of the global economy and improving air quality. They will be all the more necessary in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s conclusion this month that the rise in average world temperatures must be kept to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, requiring fast action.

Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development stated that “improving energy efficiency of air conditioners and other cooling devices is something we know how to do and can do immediately to slow climate emissions, including in China, which makes 70% of the world’s ACs.”

Zaelke added that initial estimates suggest that “we can avoid up to 1°C of warming by end of the century by improving cooling efficiency while we phase down HFC refrigerants as mandated by the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which alone can avoid up to a half degree of warming.” “This is the kind of fast action we need to avoid the climate catastrophe that awaits us in, what the IPCC 1.5°C report calculates, could be as little as 12 years.”

Zaelke, along with Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, and professor V. Ramanathan recently published an essay in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noting the recent IPCC report understated the high risk of self-reinforcing, runaway climate change feedbacks that may occur at lower global average temperatures than previously understood.

The IEA report incorporates a new Efficient World Scenario, depicting “what would happen if countries realized all the available cost-effective energy efficiency potential between now and 2040.” Under it, the size of the global economy could double even as emissions fell. The scenario shows that the energy demand from buildings worldwide “could remain flat between now and 2040”, despite their total floor area “growing by 60%”, causing them “to be nearly 40 percent more energy-efficient than today.”

The report notes “space cooling is a major driver of building energy demand and will require policy attention to realize efficiency gains.” It had increased from 3.6 exajoules to 7 exajoules since 2000, “making it the fastest-growing end-use in buildings, led by a combination of warmer temperatures and activity due to population and economic growth. Without efficiency gains, space cooling energy use would more than double between now and 2040 due to increased activity and use of air conditioning.”

Yet, it adds, energy efficiency for cooling could limit this growth to just 19 percent. This, in turn, provided “over a quarter of the potential building energy savings for the major emerging economies” and “12% of global energy savings potential…. Average air conditioner efficiency could double, which is possible with current technology.”

The report also describes how Colombia “has just announced a ‘Return and Save’ program to replace one million refrigerators within five years by reducing value-added tax on the most efficient refrigerators from 19% to 5% while, recycling old refrigerators and disposing of their refrigerant (in keeping with the country’s commitment under the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer). The policy is expected to bring in money for the government, with the tax revenue reduction offset by the reduction of energy subsidies and creation of 200 direct and 10,000 indirect jobs.” India, meanwhile, is developing a National Cooling Action Plan, considering “refrigerant technology, thermal comfort, building design, and standards and labeling.”

Under the Efficient World Scenario annual investment in efficient building and appliances rises from USD $140 billion in 2017 to an average of up to USD $220 billion up to 2025, and then to USD $360 billion to 2040.”

Since 2000 it adds, “efficiency gains saved an additional 37 exajoules of final energy use in IEA countries and other major economies – equivalent to the final energy use of Japan and India combined.” The six major emerging economies – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa – saved 13 exajoules, with China alone responsible for 80 percent of it.

But the potential is far greater. “The economies of these six countries could be more than 2.5 times larger in 2040 than today, for only 25% more energy demand.”

The joint fossil fuel import bill of China and India in 2040 “could fall by nearly USD $500 billion. Families could benefit from over USD $550 billion of avoided energy spending in their cars and homes.” Meanwhile, the Efficient World scenario would “cut key air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter by one-third compared to today.”

The report notes that its conclusions, encouraging though they are, maybe “conservative” as they are based on existing technologies and take no account of improved technologies expected to become available over the next two decades.