Staying cool through air conditioning brings comfort but with a far reaching price. A new energy model has examined the relationship between climate, income growth, and energy security. Accordingly, the continuous increase in income in developing countries coupled with increase in temperature due to global warming would result in more air condition use that in turn, would increase energy consumption and strain energy infrastructures.
Professor Lucas Davis and Paul Gertler from the Hass School of Business, University of California, Berkeley developed the model that established the close relationship between future air condition use in developing countries and future problems in energy security and overall environmental sustainability.
An analysis of data on 27,000 households in Mexico revealed that at all income levels, air condition usage in cool areas of the country is at 10% or less. However, in warm areas, air condition usage increases steadily with income. Assuming conservative increases in income and temperature increases, the model predicts near universal saturation of air conditioning in all warm areas within just a few decades.
Note that Davis and Gertler studied Mexico because it has a varied climate ranging from hot, humid, and tropical to dry desserts and high-altitude plateaus.
“In the near future, over a billion people in Africa, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico and other low and middle income countries will be able to purchase their first air conditioner resulting in a massive increase in energy demand,” said Gertler. “Now is the time for the public and private sectors to collaborate and develop infrastructures capable of accommodating rising demand, as well build air conditioners that are more energy efficient and more affordable for poorer populations.”
“In China alone, sales of air conditioners have nearly doubled over the last five years,” said Davis. “Meeting the increased demand for electricity in the future will be an enormous challenge requiring trillions of dollars of infrastructure investments and potentially resulting in billions of tons of increased carbon dioxide emissions.”
Air condition usage in Mexico will increase due to rising temperature and this would further result in an 81% increase in energy expenditure. However, Davis and Gertler noted that this projection remains indefinite because future technological changes and higher energy prices could result in lower estimates.
Factoring in population, Davis and Gertler found out that the global impact of increased air condition usage is far reaching. The potential demand for cooling in India, for example, is 12 times higher than in the United States simply because the former has 1.2 billion population while the latter only has 316 million.
The energy infrastructure in India is currently having a problem accommodating surges in energy demand and consumption resulting in prevalence of brownouts and blackouts.
Davis and Gertler also mentioned that while more energy-efficient air conditioners and low-carbon electricity generation could help mitigate environmental concerns, the future of electricity prices will also depend on the progress of other factors.
Nonetheless, it remains clear that air condition use in developing countries will increase because of continuous improvement in income coupled with rising temperature due to global warming. Furthermore, it remains clear that more air condition use in developing countries could strain energy infrastructures, especially if there are ongoing problems concerning energy security.
Further details of the study are in the article “Contribution of air conditioning adoption to future energy use under global warming” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.