Here is an amazing statistic: 10 air conditioners are sold every second.¹ That presents a conundrum. As climate change creates weather pattern shifts, warming the planet, air conditioning is an important tool in keeping people cool during heat waves.
However, AC energy consumption, refrigerants, and the strain they put on the electric grid can be part of the problem. In this article, we’ll discuss a sustainable path to keeping cool and reducing global emissions.
The Environmental Impact of Air Conditioning
Traditional air conditioning systems are known to have a significant impact on both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. As more and more people in hot climates buy air conditioners, energy use rises, straining regional energy grids. Many of these electric grids burn fuels to produce electricity. Ten percent of global electricity use goes towards space cooling, while air conditioning accounts for 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.²
Refrigerants – HCFCs, HFCs, and HFOs – are a key component in air conditioning. However, refrigerant leaks from air conditioning systems can have significant environmental consequences.
Each small coolant leak releases refrigerant gas into the atmosphere which can contribute to ozone depletion and global warming. These leaks, multiplied over millions of AC units around the world, will have a critical impact on the global climate. More environmentally friendly refrigerant alternatives continue to be developed as the industry focuses on reducing global warming impact.
The Cooling Paradox– A Vicious Cycle
In the United States, air conditioning uses about 18% of the electricity in homes.³ Often this electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels like coal or natural gas, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere – a cycle of heating up the planet, requiring more AC to stay cool.
In the Pacific Northwest, much of our electricity comes from hydropower which is dependent on water.⁵ Warming winters reduces snowpack, which affects summer water supplies that our electricity depends on.
Air Conditioning Demands Across the World
As the planet warms, global demand for air conditioning is set to significantly increase over the next few decades. It is estimated that by 2050, two-thirds of the world could have an air conditioner, triple what it is today.⁶
Developing nations like Brazil, Indonesia, and India will see a rise in AC units over the coming years as their populations become more affluent and seek ways to cool down. And in under-air-conditioned areas like the Pacific Northwest where less than 50 percent of homes have AC, hotter summers (114 degrees in the summer of 2021!) are driving demand.
Air conditioning was developed to control humidity. Because humidity reduces our body's ability to cool off through sweat evaporation, air conditioning dehumidifies the air making a space feel cooler.
In rising humidity or super humid regions, AC units have to work harder, which leads to higher energy consumption. Additionally, people tend to set their thermostats to lower temperatures on humid days to compensate for the sticky discomfort, increasing energy use.
Improving Our Energy Grids
Clean energy is our most crucial fix to the air conditioning paradox. As more people seek ways to cool down using energy that does not contribute to climate change through CO2. This could include better energy storage, creating microgrids, or investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Innovations in Air Conditioning Technology
The good news is that innovations in air conditioning technology are boosting efficiency while their cooling power is saving lives in regions that are heating up.
Energy-efficient air conditioners are coming onto the market that use inverter technology, which allows for more precise temperature control and eliminates wasted energy. Newer Energy Star-certified units are up to 60% more efficient than in 1990. And many new AC models use advanced inverter technology that adjusts cooling levels according to demand. This can save energy and money on your monthly utility bills.
Integrated humidity sensors reduce energy consumption, and high-tech solutions like smart thermostats help control a home's comfort levels while reducing energy consumption.
Read next: What is Inverter Heat Pump Technology?
More large companies are transitioning to natural refrigerant gases such as propane and ammonia, with much lower Global Warming Potential ratings than old HFCs.⁷ For residential air conditioners, new blended HFCs are being developed that are also more environmentally friendly.
Government Policies and Regulations
Governments and utilities have an opportunity to make the grid more efficient for cooling, reducing peak electricity load. This could include better energy storage, creating microgrids, or investing in renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Some of the work has already started. Around the world, governments have implemented various strategies, including energy conservation standards, labels, financial incentives, and other policies to drive the cooling market towards more energy-efficient appliances. Additionally, 170 countries agreed to cut HFC refrigerant production and consumption over the next 30 years.
Energy-Efficient Systems at Home
A big issue is that today's consumers are not choosing the most efficient AC units.
Homeowners can play their part by choosing more efficient modes of cooling:
- Select energy-efficient products: When purchasing new HVAC equipment, it's crucial to consider energy efficiency.
- Consider the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER): Air conditioning units have SEER ratings to help homeowners select the best unit for their homes. Higher SEER ratings indicate more efficient units.
- Choose a properly sized AC system: a wrong-sized AC system will use more energy and not keep your home comfortable.
- Evaluate the type of cooling system: Ductless or Mini-Split systems are considered the most energy-efficient air conditioning systems on the market.
- Add smart technology: Smart thermostats can help regulate comfort when you are home and reduce energy consumption when you aren't.
- Keep your system tuned up: Annual HVAC tune-ups of your system will keep it working at maximum efficiency, reducing energy consumption, bills, and repairs.
Read next: HVAC Efficiency Ratings Explained
Passive Cooling Strategies
Consider passive cooling methods that reduce your air conditioning load by using cooling strategies like strategic shading, lighter-colored roofs, ventilation, fans, low-heat indoor lighting, and reflective materials.
One of the most cost-effective home energy conservation measures for both heating and cooling is to add extra ceiling or wall insulation. Upgrading windows to double or triple-pane can also improve energy efficiency and help keep heat in or out depending on the time of year.
Read next: How Energy-Efficient is Your Home?
The Way Forward
According to the International Energy Agency, investing in more efficient ACs could cut future energy demand in half.⁸ Adopting sustainable and energy-efficient AC technology will play a significant role in combating climate change.
Some of the quickest ways to begin are by installing better home insulation and a smart thermostat. When it is time to upgrade your HVAC system, look for higher Energy Star and SEER ratings. You might even consider a heat pump or geothermal system. By choosing new air conditioning or cooling technology, you can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which ultimately aids in the fight against global warming.
Read Next: Heat Pump Tax Credits Explained
Sustainable HVAC System Installation
As the Portland area gets warmer, cooling systems have become a significant part of more homes. Installing or upgrading to a high-efficiency AC system will reduce the impact of climate change and save you money.
Our Jacobs Heating & Air Conditioning consultants will evaluate your home to ensure you have the best AC, furnace, or heat pump system for your home and comfort while lowering your carbon footprint, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing long-term savings.
1. Bloomberg. "In a Warming World, 10 Air Conditioners Are Sold Every Second, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-05-17/how-much-air-conditioning-will-it-take-to-cool-the-world?sref=wINQCNXe#xj4y7vzkg"
2. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Humidity’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions from air conditioning, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2542435122000940"
3. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Air conditioning and other appliances increase residential electricity use in the summer, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=31312"
4. The National Audubon Society. "How Air-Conditioning Creates a Climate Conundrum, https://www.audubon.org/magazine/summer-2022/how-air-conditioning-creates-climate-conundrum"
5. Kavya Balaraman, "‘Imagine the unimaginable’: How the Pacific Northwest is trying to build a reliable grid in a changing climate, https://www.utilitydive.com/news/pacific-northwest-reliable-grid-changing-climate/608959/"
6. MIT Technology Review. "Air conditioning technology is the great missed opportunity in the fight against climate change, https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/09/01/1007762/air-conditioning-grid-blackouts-california-climate-change/"
7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Refrigerant Transition & Environmental Impacts, https://www.epa.gov/mvac/refrigerant-transition-environmental-impacts"
8. International Energy Agency. “The Future of Cooling, https://www.iea.org/reports/the-future-of-cooling”
9. IEA, Global air conditioner stock, 1990-2050, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/global-air-conditioner-stock-1990-2050, IEA. Licence: CC BY 4.0