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'Absolutely disastrous': Air conditioners take horror toll on the environment, campaigners warn

Parts of air-conditioning devices at a recycling facility in 2013
Parts of air-conditioning devices at a recycling facility in 2013   -   Copyright  CESAR MANSO / AFP
By Charlotte Elton

If you’ve coped in a sweltering heatwave by blasting the air conditioning, you aren’t alone.

As the planet heats up, more people are turning to AC to stay cool.

But these energy-guzzling, chemical-leaking units take a huge toll on the planet.

With the worldwide number of air conditioners projected to triple by 2050, experts warn that we urgently need to change course.

Here’s why - and where in Europe is best for alternatives.

How bad is air conditioning for the planet?

Air conditioners use more electricity than any other appliance in the home. Along with electric fans, they consume 10 per cent of global electricity.

The average unit is just one third as efficient as it could be, warns Sophie Geoghegan, a climate campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based green NGO.

“These energy guzzling pieces of equipment are often running for many, many hours a day,” she says.

“When you look at commercial refrigeration, they're always running.

“According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050, fans and space cooling will consume as much electricity as all of China and India do today.”

Unfortunately, energy consumption is just one part of the problem. AC units also leak hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants (HFCs), gases with powerful planet-warming properties.

The most commonly used refrigerant - R-410A - is a whopping 2,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

These gases are the “elephant in the room,” Geoghegan warns.

“It’s terrifying. Given how many people are buying air conditioners, it could be absolutely disastrous,” she says.

Which countries in Europe are regulating air conditioning the best?

Some countries in Europe have adopted measures to minimise their use.

Italy and Spain have imposed rules on how high the AC can be set in government buildings, including schools. In Italy, it can’t be set lower than 25 degrees celsius. In Spain, the lower limit is 27 degrees.

In France, government buildings can only turn on the air conditioning if the outside temperature exceeds 26 degrees. The country recently banned air-conditioned shops from keeping their doors open.

In Switzerland, some cantons regulate the purchase of air conditioning. People in Geneva must have a ‘valid reason’ to purchase AC, such as certain health conditions.

Germany has green-procurement standards for public contracts, requiring that ACs purchased this way meet certain environmental standards.

Canva / izzetugutmen
It can be tempting to reach for the air conditioning remote - but the units leak planet warming chemicalsCanva / izzetugutmen

Countries outside of Europe have also campaigned against excess air con usage.

After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, energy saving, or "setsuden", became a national project for Japan.

The national environment ministry estimated that raising the temperature on your air-conditioning unit just one degree resulted in about 13 per cent less energy consumption.

In turn, workplaces raised thermostats, urging employees to wear lighter clothes in the summer.

These are welcome initiatives - but they are “baby steps” says Geoghegan. Stronger action is needed.

What can we do about the environmental impact of air conditioning?

The best solution is to design where we live so that we simply don’t need AC to cool us down..

City planning plays a big role in this. Maximising trees and green space, positioning buildings to maximise shade and ventilation, and embracing water features are all important steps.

During the 2007 heatwave, French authorities set up community cooling spaces - air-conditioned spaces where people could gather - to reduce reliance on individual air conditioning.

“A world where every single person has an air conditioning unit is not a sustainable world,” Geoghegan says.

However, she recognises that some people do need air conditioners - particularly the vulnerable and those who live in the hottest parts of the world.

To cope with this demand, governments need to hold the industry to stricter regulatory standards.

This starts by phasing out harmful HFCs and replacing them with more environmentally friendly refrigerants - like ammonia, CO2, and hydrocarbons such as propane.

The EU’s ‘F-gas Regulation’ aims to reduce F-gas emissions by two thirds of 2010 levels by 2030. It’s currently up for debate.

“The HFC phasedown within Europe is currently being revised by the EU,” Geoghegan says.

“Governments need to be supporting a very ambitious revision of that legislation.”

To help consumers choose more environmentally friendly options, the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace have launched the Cool Technologies website.

The database showcases best-in-class, HFC-free cooling technology.

Governments should financially incentivise the purchase of these technologies, mandate eco-labelling on units, and adopt minimum national standards.

“This is low-hanging fruit,” Geoghegan says.

“The technology is there, we just need a legislative push to get industry onboard.

“To individuals, I would say - really consider if you actually need an air conditioner. If you do have to get one, you need to do your homework.”