Summer’s not yet here, but because 90% of American households have air-conditioning, many people are already running theirs. Air-conditioning is concentrated mainly in the US, Japan and, increasingly, China. But for the 2.8 billion people living in other really hot countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, only about 8 percent of the population owns an air-conditioner. There are approximately 1.6 billion air-conditioning units today, but according to a report issued Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, that number is expected to rise to 5.6 billion units by 2050.
Why are those numbers important? Because there is growing concern that as other countries adopt America’s love of air-conditioners, the electricity used to power them will overburden electrical grids and increase planet-warming emissions. The greenhouse gases released by coal and natural gas alone, as they generate electricity to power all those air-conditioners, would nearly double by mid-century. And because those emissions would be contributing to global warming, the demand for more air-conditioning would also be going up, with much of the demand in India, China, and Indonesia.
Having access to air-conditioning on hot days isn’t just a choice to be “cooler.” It can be a matter of life and death. Chicago’s 1995 heat wave killed more than 700 people, while severe heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 killed tens of thousands each time. So the answer isn’t to get rid of air-conditioners; they just must be made more efficient.