An estimated 3.3 billion room air-conditioning units will be installed in the world between now and 2050. Most of these units are inefficient and will place a significant burden on electricity grid infrastructure and consumers in developing countries. Drastic transformation of residential cooling technology through innovation can improve people’s health, productivity, and well-being, all while avoiding runaway climate change.
A basic human right we can’t ignore
Our planet is getting hotter. Already, 30 percent of the world’s population is exposed to potentially dangerous heat conditions; by 2100, up to three-quarters could be at risk. Affordable cooling is becoming a global necessity, allowing for increased productivity, positive health outcomes, and accelerated economic development.
Cooling poses a big risk to our environment and our energy systems
There are currently 1.2 billion room air conditioning units in service around the world; however, it is estimated that the number of units will increase to at least 4.5 billion by 2050. Developing countries specifically will see a fivefold increase in demand over the same period.
The increased demand for air-conditioning units would place a massive new burden on electricity grids that are already straining at their limits. Plus, when combined with the atmospheric impact of the refrigerants utilized by air conditioners, the energy consumption associated with mechanical cooling represents one of the largest end-use risks to our climate. In the business-as-usual scenario, room air conditioning units could contribute to over 0.5˚C increase in global warming by 2100.
Room air conditioners (RACs) alone could add an estimated 132 GT of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions cumulatively, between now and 2050. This increase would make it extremely difficult to keep global warming to less than 2˚C above preindustrial levels, the Paris Agreement climate goal.
Current initiatives and technologies are critical but not sufficient
International initiatives, such as those centered around the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, have made significant headway in addressing this challenge. While important, these initiatives are not sufficient to address the full consequences of cooling demand growth, as refrigerants account for only 20 to 30 percent of RAC-related emissions.
The market is not moving fast enough to provide a solution at scale. The globally consolidated air-conditioning industry has largely relied on market signals, which have reinforced their focus on lowering production costs and increasing sales volumes. Even the most advanced commercially available RACs have achieved only 14 percent of maximum theoretical efficiency; the most commonly available RAC units operate at only 6 to 8 percent of maximum theoretical efficiency. This stands in stark contrast with technologies like LEDs or solar photovoltaics. Through investments in R&D, these products have achieved efficiencies of up to 89 percent and 53 percent of their respective theoretical maximums.