Heating Up, Cooling Off

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.

Air conditioners in Istanbul, Turkey.
Photo: PKR

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.

Old-fashioned air-conditioning in Dubai. The tower catches wind from four directions and channels it down into the house.
Photo: Denise Chan/Flckr via The Ecologist

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.


Patch Job

A study published earlier this year pointed to a decrease in the size of the ozone hole over the Antarctic.

This healing process indicates the success of the Montreal Protocol, the 1989 treaty intended to limit the production and use of ozone-harming chemicals.

Ratified by all United Nations Members, as well as Niue, the Cook Islands, the Holy See and the European Union, it’s been hailed as “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.” (Kofi Annan)

Ten Circles - magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn Artist: Susanna Bauer

Ten Circles – magnolia leaf crotched with cotton yarn
Artist: Susanna Bauer

It’s worth noting that the movement to reduce the production and use of gases that affect the ozone layer came long before ‘scientific consensus’ was actually reached.

Like the discussion surrounding carbon emissions and climate change, scientists who argued for a reduction in chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production and use (mainly for refrigeration purposes and aerosol spray propellant) faced an array of opposition.

One, Two, Three Artist: Susanna Bauer

One, Two, Three
Artist: Susanna Bauer

DuPont held the patent for Freon, a CFC widely used around the world, but one which was losing profitability. The company put up aggressive arguments against any regulation of CFC production for several years – while searching for replacement alternatives.

The publication of ozone hole images in the 1980s focused public attention on the issue, just around the time DuPont felt it had found viable gas alternatives and the Freon patent had expired.

DuPont switched course, became an active supporter of CFC limitation and a strong proponent of international action. It also earned itself a reputation as a company concerned with the environmental impact of its products. (It bears mentioning that most of the alternative products also count as harmful greenhouse gases with varying levels of atmospheric toxicity.)

Common Ground (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Common Ground (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

The Montreal Protocal was the result of a rare confluence of public opinion, environmental interests and corporate action. Corporate and government reluctance to limit CFC production was otherwise similar to today’s climate change discussion.

In the end, it always seems to come down to habits, inertia and money (or lack thereof) on the one side, and an amassing of scientific proof and activism on the other.

Moon (II) Artist: Susanna Bauer

Moon (II)
Artist: Susanna Bauer

Perhaps what the Montreal Protocol really had going for it was the image of the hole in the atmosphere, a singular lens that could focus attention, fears, research and opinion.

It’s profoundly encouraging that the positive effects of an international treaty on a large-scale environmental challenge can be measured in a relatively short span of time.

Here’s hoping this visible progress can impact the usual cost-benefit conversations when it comes to climate change negotiations.

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040. Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider

Images of the Antarctic ozone hole. If current trends continue, the hole is expected to close by 2040.
Images/graphic: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Business Insider