In The News: Is Improving Air Conditioners the Most Effective Solution to Climate Change?

If You Fix This, You Fix a Big Piece of the Climate Puzzle by Lisa Friedman was published on July 13, 2017, in the New York Times, goes into detail about the implications that air-conditioning has on the environment. The article forces the reader to critically think right off the bat by asking what they believe is the most efficient solution to climate change between building more wind farms, eating less meat worldwide, improving air conditioners, or switching to mass transit. Although three of the options appeared to be better than the other, I decided to play devil’s advocate and chose the option of eating less meat worldwide. I wasn’t surprised when a prompt appeared informing me that my choice was incorrect, but I was intrigued to learn that “if half the people on the planet went vegetarian and followed a 2,500 calorie-per-day meal plan, it would eliminate 26.7 gigatons of emissions by 2050” (Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken). These statistics immediately prompted me to make connections to class discussions, considering we have been working on conversions with all three of these metrics recently; people, calories, and gigatons. It was exciting to see our classwork become immediately applicable to a real situation.

In comparison to the 26.7 gigatons of emissions that would be eliminated by 2050 if efforts were made to reduce the amount of meat intake, “fixing refrigeration would slash 89.7 gigatons in that same time frame.” Therefore, although meat is a decent sized contributor to climate change, refrigeration is more than 3x greater and is an area where a lot of improvements can be made. I was a little alarmed to learn that if things were to continue at the rate they are going in terms of climate change, there is expected to be a 4-5 degrees Celsius increase of temperature by 2100, which doesn’t sound like it will yield many positive consequences. Fortunately, improving the efficiency of refrigeration by phasing out fluorinated gases used for cooling can help eliminate a full degree Celsius of warming over that same time period. It’s important to note that hydrofluorocarbons, a key component of refrigeration, can be thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and have the potential to account for a significant portion of overall emissions in the near future. Trends in countries around the world are leaning toward the increased purchase of air-conditioners which will lead to detrimental effects if they continue. Efforts to ban chlorofluorocarbons, which depleted the ozone, were successful, however, hydrofluorocarbons have taken their place and still contribute to global warming.

Beyond the efforts being made to regulate the chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning are efforts to make the machines for efficient. A recent study shows that a 30 percent improvement in efficiency can avoid the peak energy output of roughly 1,500 power plants by 2030; now that’s saving a lot of energy. In order to foster an environment for efficiency improvements, it will be important to devise and implement forward-thinking regulatory policies regarding manufacturing standards and labeling in order to demand the most efficient and honest air-conditioning machines. There are a lot of important steps that need to be made in order to minimize the negative effect that climate change has on the future of this planet. As the world population increases, so too will the demand for air-conditioning, and it’s important to make efficiency improvements before things get out of hand.

-Kevin McInerney



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