Thursday, June 21, 2012

The global cost of air-conditioning

Posted By on 06.21.12 at 12:32 PM

Air-conditioning gases are warming the planet
  • ToddMorris
  • Air-conditioning gases are warming the planet
I wrote Monday about a price we've paid for air-conditioning: a loss of community. In neighborhoods throughout Chicago, we used to spend more time outside on summer evenings, and as a result we commonly knew neighbors by name. Now we're more likely to be chilling inside, while we enjoy some of our other technological gifts.

I didn't bring up the environmental price of air-conditioning, but the New York Times does so on its front page today.

Air conditioners have become a "new status symbol" in developing nations, a "must-have dowry item," the Times reports. Air-conditioning sales are increasing 20 percent annually in China and India.

This growing global dependence on air-conditioning is a particular concern because the gases on which air conditioners run contribute to global warming. So the more we use our air conditioners, the more we need to use our air conditioners.

Air-conditioning gases are regulated by a 1987 treaty, the Montreal Protocol, which was designed to protect the ozone layer. Because of the Montreal Protocol, the older coolants used in air-conditioning have been replaced by coolants that don't harm the ozone layer. But the treaty didn't target global warming, whose importance wasn't widely understood when the treaty was negotiated. In the U.S., new room air conditioners use the coolant 410a, which is easy on the ozone but whose warming effect is 2,100 times that of carbon dioxide, the standard greenhouse gas. The warming effect of the older air conditioner gas, HCFC-22, is 1,810. "The therapy to cure one global environmental disaster is now seeding another," the Times says. Climate scientists warn that if the world shifts entirely to the new gas, and given the rising use of air-conditioning, as much as 27 percent of all global warming will be attributable to the new gas by 2050.

Many developing nations still use the old coolant, but the Montreal Protocol will require them to begin switching to newer ones next year. "The United States and other wealthy nations are prodding them to choose ones that do not warm the planet," according to the Times. In other words, we'd like them to do what we haven't.

Major chemical and air-conditioning companies have developed air-conditioning appliances and gases that don't contribute to global warming—but there are regulatory hurdles before they can be marketed, and safety standards to be developed because the gases can be toxic or flammable. "And with profits booming from current cooling systems . . . there is little incentive for countries or companies to move the new designs to market," according to the Times. Othmar Schwank, a Swiss environmental consultant, tells the Times: "With appliances growing in India and China, everyone is making money, so they want to delay this as much as possible."

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