As climate change drives ever hotter summer temperatures, more and more Canadians are turning to air conditioning to stay cool. It's one of the miserable ironies of global warming because air conditioning contributes to even warmer climates.

The use of air conditioners is predicted to explode as year after year sets new "hottest temperatures on record." According to a May 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, the number of air conditioners worldwide will skyrocket from 1.6 billion units today to 5.6 billion units by 2050. That would spell trouble for the planet because of the energy air conditioners need and some of the chemicals they use.

A vicious cycle of rising temperatures

People in the hottest places on the planet are often much less likely to have air conditioning — under five per cent of people in most African nations own an air conditioner.

Graphic from Quartz, based on data from the International Energy Agency

China leads the world with 569 million units installed, and now spends 68 times more electricity for cooling than it did in 1990. With a burgeoning middle class, China's demand for air conditioners is rising faster than anywhere else in the world.

Because of all the demand for energy, air conditioning is on the rise as a driver of climate change. In the U.S., it's about six per cent of the country's total residential energy use, according to a 2013 report by the Energy Information Administration, but that number might soar to almost 20 per cent by mid-century if things continue.

In addition to electricity demand, air conditioners — especially ones used in developing countries — use hydrofluorocarbons, (HFCs) which are potent greenhouse gases. Even though HFCs represent a small portion of total greenhouse gas emissions, they trap thousands of times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. While HFCs don't leak into the environment when an air conditioner is working properly, they cause damage if they aren't carefully disposed of.

In 2016, 196 nations developed a schedule to phase down HFCs under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. As of last November, 21 countries had ratified the amendment which is enough for it to come into force. For the U.S. to fully participate, two-thirds of the Senate needs to support the amendment but since pulling out of the Paris climate agreement last June, President Trump hasn't shown any interest in sending the amendment for a vote. Industry heavyweights like Dow Chemical have urged President Trump to ratify the amendment, on the premise that it will allow America to boost exports by $5 billion and create manufacturing jobs by producing replacements for old HFC appliances.

As year after year sets new "hottest temperatures on record," air conditioning use is set to explode

Canadian A/C

A recent heat wave in Quebec killed at least 54 people. Most were older men living with a physical or mental illness, without any air conditioning in their homes.

Compared to other countries, air conditioning in Canadian households isn't all that common. According to the IEA's report, 91 per cent of Japanese homes and 86 per cent of homes in South Korea have air conditioning.

In 2009, half of Canadian households (50 per cent) reported having some type of air conditioning system to combat the heat. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba has the highest proportion of households with an air conditioner (80 per cent), followed by Ontario (74 per cent) and Saskatchewan (61 per cent). The regions with the lowest household use of air conditioning were reported in Atlantic Canada (19 per cent) and British Columbia (23 per cent).

But even in B.C., the use of air conditioning has more than tripled in the last 16 years from just one-tenth of homes in 2001, to 34 per cent in 2017, according to a new report by BC Hydro.

“Record heat and long stretches of dry weather are becoming the new norm in the province, and BC Hydro’s meteorologists are predicting another hot summer this year,” Chris O’Riley, BC Hydro’s President and CEO, said in a news release. “While we typically see higher electricity demand in the cold, dark winter months, summer demand for power is rising largely due to higher A/C usage.”

There's no doubt that people need cooling to cope with rising temperatures, but how we do it is key. Curbing the climate change pollutants in air conditioners and improving their energy efficiency could save a full degree Celsius of warming by 2100.

Tips for Cooling

With or without air conditioners, there are ways to make cooling off more efficient. According to BC Hydro's report, more than 40 per cent of British Columbians surveyed said they leave their air conditioners running when they are not at home. Turning the A/C off when no one is home would be a start. Other tips include:

  • Shading windows, as shaded windows can block out up to 65 per cent of the heat.
  • Closing windows and doors when the temperature outside is hotter than the temperature inside. Closing the windows would help keep homes cooler.
  • Using fans, including ceiling fans, which generally use less power than air conditioners
  • Limiting use of the stove and oven on hot days

Keep reading

Tip for cooling. Change the building codes to Passive house design.

Thanks for this thought-provoking article, and for the practical suggestions that are easy and doable.

Years ago, when we got our 1950s, off-grid, cottage, there was a full bookcase. One of the books that we read to each other in the evenings was Anna Brownell Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, published in 1838.

The winter in Toronto that she describes is beyond recognition: snow so deep in the streets that horse-drawn sleds can't get through.

So, an early Canadian example of how our lifestyle, particularly in cities, has changed the natural weather patterns.