The East Coast swelters, and those of us blanketed by a typical San Francisco summer fog feel your pain. So even we winced at Wednesday’s New York Times story on the damaging effect of the world’s air conditioners on planetary climate. Couldn’t the Grey Lady’s editors have waited until a cooler day to tell its readers that pound for pound, modern air-conditioning gases “contribute to global warming thousands of times more than does carbon dioxide, the standard greenhouse gas”?
It all comes back to the celebrated 1987 Montreal Protocol, which has progressively worked to phase out ozone-damaging CFC coolants, starting with industrialized nations. It is considered the most successful environmental treaty ever crafted. But as the Times notes, “leading scientists in the field have just calculated that if all the equipment entering the world market uses the newest gases currently employed in air-conditioners, up to 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to those gases by 2050.”
Back in 1987, ozone, not climate, was the issue, so the newest treaty-compliant air conditioners in the U.S. “now use an HFC coolant called 410a, labeled ‘environmentally friendly’ because it spares the ozone. But its warming effect is 2,100 times that of carbon dioxide.”
The Times also notes that air-conditioning sales are growing 20 percent a year in China and India. “As middle classes grow, units become more affordable and temperatures rise with climate change.”
And air conditioning has become institutionalized in the energy-gobbling U.S. People living in the Sun Belt depend on it, and rather than being designed to rely on natural ventilation, many buildings require central a/c. Grist offers up a fascinating interview with Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) (New Press, 2010). According to Cox, despite the increasing efficiencies of air conditioning systems, the “energy consumed by an average U.S. air-conditioned home increased by 37 percent in just twelve years. That, along with population increase and wider adoption of air-conditioning, led to a doubling of total energy consumption for home air-conditioning.”
Image by iStock/gchutka
Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”