When air conditioners contribute to global warming

An estimated 10% of homes in Switzerland are equipped with air conditioning. Istvan Balogh / Alamy Stock Photo

Increasingly intense and frequent heat waves favor the use of air conditioning, even in countries with a temperate climate such as Switzerland. But the more buildings are cooled, the more the planet heats up.

This content was published on July 26, 2022 – 2:45 p.m

Summer will be warmer than usual. Forecasts by the Federal Office for Meteorology and Climatology (MeteoSwiss) for the end of May, a month with record temperatures, were confirmed in June. An exceptional heat wave affected several regions of Switzerland with temperatures up to 37°C north of the Alps.

With global warming, temperatures are rising around the world and events labeled “extraordinary” are becoming the norm. In many places in Switzerland, the number of days with a temperature above 25°C has practically doubled since measurements began, and the same trend can be observed for tropical days (30°C or more). According to MeteoSwiss, June of this year was the second warmest since measurements began in 1864.

Rising temperatures also increase the need to cool buildings. This development seems logical and understandable. But the flip side of the coin is an increase in electricity consumption and global greenhouse gas emissions. A vicious circle that could have harmful consequences for the planet and human health.

Two billion air conditioners worldwide

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), almost two billion air conditioners are in use worldwide. Most of these are in buildings in the US, Japan and most notably China, where growth has been strongest since 2010. A significant increase can also be seen in India and Indonesia.

A study recently published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Commission, shows that the demand for space cooling has increased in Europe over the last 40 years.

In EU countries, cooling degree days – an index of the energy demand of buildings depending on weather conditions – almost tripled between 1979 and 2021. This means that air conditioning will be used more, says Eurostat. In contrast, the “heating degree days” fell by 11%.

Air conditioning in every tenth Swiss household

The sale of air conditioners is also increasing in Switzerland. Although there are no national statistics covering all fixed and mobile devices, the installers and experts we contacted confirm a growing market since the early 2000s.

“Demand has also increased due to the increase in tropical nights [nuits où la température minimale ne descend pas en dessous de 20°C]says Simone Anelotti, CEO of Neoservice, a plumbing, heating and air conditioning company based in Lugano, Ticino. “For some people, who sometimes have trouble sleeping at night, air conditioning has become a necessity.”

According to a recent study published by the University of Copenhagen, excessive nocturnal heat causes us to lose an average of 44 hours of sleep a year. However, lack of sleep can negatively impact cognitive ability, productivity and the immune system, the study points out.

“For some people, who sometimes have trouble sleeping at night, air conditioning has become a necessity.”

Simone Anelotti, Neoservice

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Many older people also need air conditioning. For them, the heat can be more than just an annoyance, explains Massimo Moretti, who has worked in the industry for 40 years. In general, people react instinctively and are only interested in air conditioning when the weather is hot. “We depend on the weather. Recently [20 juin], it was 36 degrees and I was inundated with phone calls. The next day it rained and no one called.

During the first heat wave of the year in Switzerland from June 13-19, sales of air conditioners and portable fans exploded, according to a survey of home appliance stores by the free newspaper 20 Minutes. One online shopping site has reported a 450 percent increase in demand for this type of device.

Still, people who have permanent air conditioning in their home – which requires planning permission – are in the minority. Marco von Wyl, Managing Director of the Swiss Refrigeration Association, estimates that 10% of apartments are equipped with air conditioning. However, this figure does not take into account residential buildings equipped with a reversible heat pump capable of cooling indoor spaces in summer.

In Europe, the average is around 20%. The proportion is obviously higher in Mediterranean countries such as France (25%) and Italy, where every second household has air conditioning. In Germany, only 1-2% of the living space is cooled. Globally, Japan, the United States and South Korea occupy the top positions with percentages over 80%, according to 2018 IEA data.

Air conditioners pollute more than airplanes

The IEA predicts that due to rising living standards, a growing world population and increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves, the number of air conditioners installed will increase by 40% by 2030.

Good news for the sellers (the cost of a stationary air conditioner for a bedroom is around 3000 CHF in Switzerland), but not for the environment and the climate. Air conditioners and fans consume 10% of the electricity produced worldwide. They are also responsible for around 10% of global CO2 emissions, along with other cooling appliances such as freezers. Much more than air or sea transport.

These devices contain refrigerant gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect. The most widespread today are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which since the late 1980s have gradually replaced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which are mainly responsible for depleting the ozone layer.

But even HFCs are not harmless. Their global warming potential is up to a thousand times greater than that of CO2. The Paris Climate Agreement and international agreements such as the Montreal Protocol and in particular the Kigali Amendment, which Switzerland has also ratified, are aimed at a drastic reduction in HFCs by the middle of the century.

The alternatives are CO2, ammonia and propane, explains Simone Anelotti. “These are the refrigerant gases of the future. At the moment, however, their use is still limited by their high cost, dangerousness and lower effectiveness.”

Translated from the Italian by Samuel Jaberg

According to JTI standards

According to JTI standards

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