It’s a paradox of life that what gives us pleasure in moderation often gets us into trouble when we get greedy.
I’m not talking about food, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate, or any of the other things that might come to mind. Because the second-highest heat index ever recorded in a city was marked today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran – a mix of high humidity and soaring air temperatures yielded a ‘feels-like’ of 74°C (165°F).
So I’m talking about air conditioning.
Modern air conditioning, the kind that transforms vast stretches of hot agricultural land into productive cities with office buildings and booming economies, was only invented in 1902. Before that, the height of technology when it came to cooling was the rotary fan, which was used as far back as the 2nd century in China (only for the very wealthy).
So what’s the paradox with air conditioning? Well, there are a few. For one thing, that delicious cool air comes at a price. It’s considerably more expensive than your average table or ceiling fan when it comes to electricity, because it needs a lot more power. A ceiling fan uses 25 to 90 watts of energy; central air conditioners can use as much as 2500 to 3500 watts. Even with increasing efficiency in AC units, and the expansion of renewable power generation, AC is still an energy intensive alternative.
And then there are the ozone-depleting refrigerants. CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs used for cooling are all greenhouse gases. The worst of the coolants have been banned in western countries (starting in the 1980s with the Montreal Protocol*). HFCs were banned in a 2016 treaty signed in Kigali, Rwanda, with phase-out starting in 2019 in the United States and then gradually for other countries, notably China (2024) and India (2028).
Meanwhile, AC use is rising rapidly in these countries as the middle class expands. Berkeley National Laboratory estimates that about 1.6 billion new air-conditioning units will be installed by 2050. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that we went for millennia without it, or have architectural techniques for coping with heat without AC – methods both ancient and new.
The more we use air conditioning, the hotter we make the planet, and the more we need air conditioning.
So get out your hand fan, crank up your ceiling fan (or in my case, table fan), and get ready for the next heat wave.
*Reagan signed the Montreal agreement with the words, “The Montreal protocol is a model of cooperation. (It) is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”
Although President Donald Trump removed the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, there is little worry he will do the same for the HFC agreement – the phase-out is supported by the two U.S chemical companies that make HFC alternatives, the DuPont spinoff Chemours and Honeywell International.