Air Conditioning—Treating a Public Health Benefit As a Threat

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A study conducted by the International Energy Agency (IER), entitled The Future of Cooling, predicts that billions more people around the world will own an air conditioner by 2050. This is great news from a public health and quality of life perspective, likely on par with that of a major medical advance. However, the study cast this trend in negative terms because it will lead to greater electricity use and thus increased greenhouse gas emissions. Some climate activists have even proposed policies that may keep air conditioning out of reach for many of the world’s poor.

The benefits of air conditioning are hard to overstate. Before air conditioning, the hottest months were the year’s deadliest. The sick and the elderly were particularly vulnerable to summer heat absent air conditioning to provide relief. One study estimates that air conditioning has prevented 3,000 deaths annually in the U.S. Other studies suggest even more lives saved. Beyond health, there are substantial productivity gains from more comfortable temperatures and humidity levels, including improved cognition. Try studying in 90 degree heat without air conditioning!

Unfortunately, however, air conditioning is much less prevalent in those parts of the world where it is needed most. Tropical developing nations like India and Indonesia are considerably hotter than the U.S.—and cumulatively have much larger populations—but the IER study estimates market penetration of air conditioning at less than 10 percent of households, compared to 90 percent of American residences. Poverty and lack of access to electricity have long been the culprits, but that is finally changing. If IER is right, large numbers of people in developing nations—2 billion in India and China alone—will be buying and enjoying their first air conditioner in the years ahead. The global public health benefits could easily be an order of magnitude higher than those experienced in the U.S.  

That is unless government measures limit the spread of air conditioning. The IER study asserts:  “Rigorous action by governments is needed urgently to curb the rapid demand for air conditioning.” IER’s solution is ultra-stringent energy efficiency mandates for air conditioners. Such measures risk substantially raising the purchase price of air conditioners, which would serve to keep them out reach for many low income households. Others have raised similar alarms and policy prescriptions over rising air conditioner use, including a Rocky Mountain Institute report entitled Solving the Global Cooling Challenge: How to Counter the Climate Threat From Room Air Conditioners.

The climate bureaucracy is targeting air conditioners in other ways. For example, the refrigerants currently used in most residential air conditioners will soon be subject to restrictions under the United Nations’ Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, on the grounds that they also contribute to global warming. This will raise equipment costs. It is clear that air conditioning has few friends among climate activists. 

A rational U.N. and international community would look upon increased market penetration of air conditioning as something to be welcomed, even encouraged. With increased air conditioner ownership, billions more people will have the power to turn every 90-plus degree-day outside into a 70 degree day inside. But climate activists seem ready to jeopardize the very real benefits of air conditioning in order to prevent a hypothetical few tenths of a degree temperature rise in the distant future.