As the world heats up, billions of people will need air-conditioning (AC) to survive, making what was once considered a luxury a “human right”, according to a recent article in Scientific American.

The article – “Air-Conditioning Should Be a Human Right in the Climate Crisis”  – is an opinion piece co-authored by Rose M. Mutiso and Jacob Kincer from the Energy for Growth Hub and Morgan D. Bazilian and Brooke Bowser from the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. It was published online in May.

Recognizing the potential climate implications of “a world overrun with ACs”, the article’s authors see this as an “opportunity to explore greener cooling technology” that use alternative refrigerants with a lower GWP.

“Manufacturers and governments must innovate to develop affordable and efficient AC technology using refrigerants with lower climate impact,” wrote the authors. “Switching to alternative refrigerants can also reduce cooling emissions significantly in the coming decades,” they added.

“Manufacturers and governments must innovate to develop affordable and efficient AC technology using refrigerants with lower climate impact.”

Scientific American

Natural refrigerants for cleaner cooling

Natural refrigerants, like hydrocarbons, have an important role to play in the transition to cleaner cooling, with many industry experts seeing them as the future of room ACs.

“I see the natural refrigerant side [of the HVAC&R industry] moving faster, especially R290 [propane] in air-conditioning, over the next five years,” said George Haydock, General Manager of Pioneer International, an Australian manufacturer of hydrocarbon-based AC units. “Within the next five to ten years, the majority of domestic air conditioners will be R290.”

Santosh Salian, Product Group Head – Air Conditioners, Godrej Appliances agrees, stating in a 2019 interview for Accelerate Magazine that “with its GWP as low as three, zero ODP, non-toxicity and excellent thermodynamic properties, [R290] is the future of the residential room AC industry.”

In fact, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its “Climate Change 2021 – The Physical Science Basis” report that propane has a 20-year GWP of 0.072 and a 100-year GWP of 0.02. These figures are much lower than traditionally assumed.

The global need for AC

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the past nine years have been among the 10 warmest on record. This year has already seen record-breaking temperatures, with India experiencing its hottest March since record keeping began, as well as an unprecedented heat wave that has swept across the subcontinent over the last two months. Parts of Spain have also recently seen record highs for this time of year.

Rising temperatures and extreme heat events threaten human health and well-being, with mortality rates skyrocketing during heat waves, according to Scientific American’s article. There are also implications for economic development. According to The Lancet, around 295 billion of the world’s potential work hours were lost due to heat in 2020, highlighting the potential benefits of AC on labor productivity. 

In fact, Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister of Singapore, attributes much of the country’s success to AC. “Air-conditioning was a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history,” said Lee. “Without air-conditioning you can work only in the cool early-morning hours or at dusk,” he continued. “The first thing I did upon becoming prime minister was to install air conditioners in buildings where the civil service worked.”

“We need to accept that adequate cooling is an urgent human need in a warming climate,” said the authors of the Scientific American article. “The disruption caused by extreme heat will keep growing, and access to equitable cooling technology will be necessary to ensure the survival and economic prosperity of the billions of people living in tropical regions.”

As discussed in the article, the predicted four billion AC units being added to the global stock by 2050 does not have to “blow the carbon budget.” Greener cooling technologies that are more energy efficient and use refrigerants with a lower climate impact “could be a driver of equity, economic growth and the transition to clean energy,” concluded the authors.

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